As Masquerade Theatre takes up a two-year residency in its new home at the Hobby Center’s beautiful Zilkha Hall, director, Phillip Duggins has celebrated by putting magic in the air with a splendid production of “The Melody Lingers On,” a non-stop musical tribute to the life and work of songwriter, Irving Berlin. Conceived by Karin Baker, with the orchestrations and vocal arrangements of Donald Johnson, the dialogue is loosely based on the book, Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Mary Ellin Barrett. This is a song and dance delight featuring dozens of the best popular standards of the 20th century. There is just one drawback: The show’s short run will end with this weekend’s performances. Don’t miss it!
The attractive art-deco set of designer David Higginbotham makes a perfect onstage bandstand for conductor Paula Smith and her fine 8-piece orchestra. David Gipson’s lighting designs add plenty of color variety, and costume designers Linda Rutledge, Robert Newland, and Kathy Porter, have opted for an elegant dress-black look that is kept fresh in each scene by introducing one new contrasting color for accessories like shawls, armbands, headbands, gloves, hats etc. The breezy choreography of Duggins and Laura E. Gray, is great fun even when a bit repetitive and predictable. But shining above all are the peerless music and lyrics of Berlin and the exquisite singing of this talented ensemble.
And while the performers do not portray assigned characters in the traditional sense, this is very much an ensemble effort, so much so that the cast is very deserving of mention. It includes Ms. Gray, Mr. Higginbotham, Alex Arthur, Stephanie Bradow, Sam Brown, Luther Chakurian, Rebekah Dahl, Russell Freeman, Alyssa Gardner, Dylan Godwin, Beth Hempen, Allison Sumrall Hunt, Braden Hunt, Becky Moyes, Monica Passley, Matthew Redden, Manuel Santos, Margaret Selig, Aaron Stryk, Kristina Sullivan, and Evan Tessier.
The musical treats include the pulsing, finger-snapping opener, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which quickly demonstrates the fine dancing and choral work that are the backbone of the show. The performers grin from ear to ear, but why not? The song is a joy. Alternate cast narrators guide us through Berlin’s life and music from his childhood in New York’s Lower East Side, to his first wife’s early death of typhoid, his courtship and marriage with second wife, Ellin, the birth of his daughters, and the tragic crib death of his infant son, Irving Berlin Jr. We visit his Hollywood years with friends like dancer, Fred Astaire, and composers George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern. We sample his Broadway successes with such stars as Ethel Merman, and his triumphs as a wartime composer honored for his musical contributions to victory. (We hear “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This is the Army, Mr. Jones,” and a perfect “God Bless America.”)
Through it all the music is the message: a delicate “What’ll I Do?” a gaily tap-danced, “I Love A Piano,” the sweet harmonies of “Everybody’s Doin’ It,” and a charming “The Girl On the Magazine Cover,” with fine singing from Santos and Gray. There is a cute “Snookey Ookums,” and an angelic choir for Braden’s powerful “When I Lost You.” Abundantly talented Ms. Dahl has a field day with “Play a Simple Melody,” as Godwin skillfully works the tune’s counterpoints. Freeman and Ms. Hunt have vocal and comic skill in “You’d Be Surprised,” while the gents offer the rapturous “A Pretty Girl,” with Gray dancing gracefully on point. The song and dance power of “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’,” was followed by Fosse-like choreography for a “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with fine vocals that continued in “Always,” “Blue Skies,” and “How Deep is the Ocean?” The jazzy “Shakin’ the Blues Away” featured Charleston dancing, excellent choral work, and reflected Berlin’s battles with depression.
Act II delights included Tessier’s deep-voiced, “Marie,” and a magically tender “Say It Isn’t So,” from the ensemble. There was a sultry, “Heat Wave” and a passionate, “Suppertime.” Bradow sings a fine “Easter Parade” that may have a bit too much clowning from the guys. Astaire favorites included a “Cheek to Cheek” that left one longing for Fred and Ginger, but there was a pleasant “Change Partners,” a zesty “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and a romantic “Let’s Face the Music” duet. In each, the superb singing outpaced the dancing. Dahl leads a lively “Let Yourself Go,” with Tessier, and Chakurian offers a pleasing “White Christmas.” There is so much more, including “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” When I count my blessings tonight, Irving Berlin and the Masquerade Theatre will be high on my list.
Masquerade’s “Melody” plays at Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby St., July 29th and 30th at 8 p.m. and Sunday July 31st at 2 p.m. For tickets and information call: 713-315-2525 or visit www.thehobbycenter.org.
(The Courier 7.29.05)