note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Beverly Creasey
Isreal Baline knew no English when his family arrived at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century. Israel was the youngest of eight children—who soon had to fend for themselves when their father died. Irving, as he was now called, literally sang for his supper in vaudeville houses and bars. Soon he was being hired all over town for his ability to bring a tear to the eye with his sad little songs. And soon he was running with leading musicians like George Whiting, Eubie Blake and Scott Joplin. Irving Berlin could write in any idiom for any culture.
The Reagle Players are delivering a delightful history lesson, called SAY IT WITH MUSIC, taking us through Berlin’s vaudeville years, the war years, the Follies performances and his Hollywood triumphs. Berlin composed over 1500 songs in a century of life that spanned our country’s industrial and political growth. Reagle pulls out all the stops for a tribute extravaganza, even recreating the famous “Cheek to Cheek” waltz for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, right down to the flying feathers on her gown, which nearly stopped production of the film.
Guest stars Beverly and Kirby Ward dance elegantly together, whether tapping up a storm in “friendly” competition --or sweeping romantically around the stage. They make it seem easy to appear lighter than air—to soar into full swoons or to fly into each other’s arms. (And you know what they say about degree of difficulty: Ginger did everything Fred did, but backwards and in high heels!)
Reagle favorites don’t disappoint. Rusty Russell lets the song tell a story. His composure, his delivery and his supple voice make his numbers a pleasure. R. Glen Michell, too, knows how to command the stage, something some of the newer performers will learn as they get more shows under their belts. Marla Jenkins reprises her signature “I Love a Piano” and Cara Green shows herself to be a charming addition to Reagle’s roster. And, as always, director Bob Eagle gets four dozen people off and on again in nanoseconds.
Reagle’s only misstep this time out is to tell us what a champion of equality Berlin was—and not show us. The song about lynching (“Suppertime”) he wrote for Ethel Waters loses its resonance when sung by a white woman in “mammy” garb. Ann Ormond has a lovely contralto but the song just doesn’t make sense in the white idiom. Nor does the patriotic “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” number when there isn’t one immigrant in sight. (Eagle solves the blackface problem in the minstrel show numbers by using black light to illuminate only hands, vests and tambourines, which glow cleverly in the dark.)
What makes Reagle stand out is their willingness to hire excellent singers (and dancers) no matter what their size. While every other show in town employs the skinniest of women, and the buffest of men to people their choruses, Reagle’s casts reflect society at large, so to speak. So why not reflect all of us?