You probably can already hum the tunes. You may even know all the words. But you’re still going to love “I Love a Piano,” Crown Uptown Theatre’s fresh and energetic take on more than 60 of Irving Berlin’s classic and beloved songs.
Unabashedly sentimental, lushly romantic and proudly patriotic, this musical revue from Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley repurposes ditties like “Play a Simple Melody,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Blue Skies,” “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” to fashion a picture of America from ragtime through the Depression and World War II up to the optimistic 1950s.
It’s more nostalgia than history, of course. But the gloriously talented six-member troupe – Ben Cramer, Brittney Morton, Ryan Ehresman, Emily Pirtle, Austin Stang and Janet Wiggins – pumps fresh blood through the familiar veins and brings it all to life in full-throated, fast-paced, six-part harmony.
Director Matthew Rumsey whips up a delightful and sometimes heart-touching tapestry of vignettes on a bare stage with the help of just colored lights and painted backdrops. Music director Jesse Warkentin seems to have more than two hands as he covers all the keyboard accompaniment, supported by Ben Balleau on bass and Scott Taylor on drums.
Choreographer Maurice Sims gives the performers clever, inventive and even gymnastic moves to capture the shifting moods and evolving eras. Sims also uses a vintage upright piano on casters as another “dancer” to be rolled and twirled around the stage as part of the ensemble. That piano is the only constant “character” in the show as it passes through the generations.
But the real applause must go to the six “triple-threats” (singers/dancers/actors) who put it all together, playing dozens of individual characters, from rich to poor, naive to naughty, civilian to soldier, commoner to celebrity with quick-change help from costumer Dora Arbuckle’s gorgeous period designs (despite a couple of amusing wardrobe malfunctions with errant suspenders on opening night).
Cramer (“Cats,” “White Christmas”) and Morton (“Little Women,” White Christmas”) are paired as George and Ginger, sort of the dewy-eyed heartthrobs of the show. The two make the most of romantic ballads like “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” and “Old Fashioned Wedding.”
Cramer, with his baritone-tenor range, has wicked fun soloing with the lesser-known syncopated “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil.” He also gives a resonant turn to “The Girl That I Marry” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” For her part, Morton and her rich soprano shine with “Let Yourself Go” and “Say It Isn’t So” as well as the top-tapping title tune (and show finale) “I Love a Piano.”
Ehresman (“Godspell,” “Hairspray”) and Pirtle (“Hairspray,” “White Christmas”) team up as Alex and Sadie, the been-around-the-block couple who give gravitas to roles like Depression-battered businessmen and housewives, generals and war widows. Ehresman gives a determinedly hopeful aura to “Two Cheers Instead of Three” while Pirtle can break your heart with “Russian Lullaby” and “Supper Time,” then give you goosebumps with “God Bless America.”
Stang (“Spring Awakening,” “Cats”) and Wiggins (“Hairspray,” “Cats”) are the frolicking, dance-crazy fun couple, Jim and Eileen. The two were paired previously as the athletic Mungojerrie and Rumpleteezer in “Cats,” and they bring that flexible, cart-wheeling flair to their dances here.
The two pay witty, affectionate homage to Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in the comic “We’re a Couple of Swells” and blend for the mellow “Blue Skies.” Stang’s jaunty tenor also has fun with the likes of “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” as well as the heartfelt “Count Your Blessings” while Wiggins touches an emotional chord with “What’ll I Do?”
The most toe-tapping fun comes during the jazz era segment that high-steps its way through a medley of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Cheek to Cheek.” The most vocal fun comes with a romp through fantasy auditions for “Annie Get Your Gun” with the three women trying to one-up each other in “Anything You Can Do,” “I Got Lost in His Arms” and “The Best Thing for You.”
But the show-stopping highlight is the old-fashioned, flag-waving, stand-up-and-cheer World War II tribute that goes from “This Is the Army” to the lyrical “White Christmas” to the stirring “God Bless America.” You can’t get any more classic American – or Irving Berlin – than that.