It’s a tribute to the music of Irving Berlin. It’s I Love a Piano and it’s currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.
Yes, the show is a tribute to the works of Berlin, but it’s so much more than that as well. In many ways, it’s one of the most difficult shows I’ve ever seen staged as it’s, essentially, dozens of mini-plays mashed together. As, arguably, America’s greatest composer, Berlin was not only extremely prolific over his 50 year career, but he also possessed rare versatility as he could write standards, comic songs, love songs, heartbreakers, and even patriotic songs. Over 60 of his songs are performed in this production and each is a vignette which requires effective direction and triple threat performers as they need to be able to sing, dance, and, most importantly, act through the songs. And, trust me, this show has that in spades and then some.
Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley did a stellar job arranging this show as each song flows naturally into the next and essentially tells the story of America from the turn of the century through the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the framing device of a covered piano and the piano is actually the central character as you follow its journey through the joys and heartaches of America over five decades.
Courtney Crouse’s direction is some of the most nuanced I’ve seen in a show. As I earlier stated, a director really has to be rock solid to direct this production as he or she is, more or less, directing 60 tiny shows and needs to string it all together logically. Crouse’s direction has just that assurance.
His staging is impeccable as he makes full use of the stage and I always had a clear line of vision to every performer and there was never a single moment of upstaging. His knowledge of the beats was dead on target. Doubly crucial as the beat changes came with lightning speed. He guided his troupe to utterly flawless performances and they knew how to hit the song points that made them funnier, sadder, more serious, more gleeful, and just more fun.
Jacob Barton and Taylor Kraft have absolutely unmatched stage chemistry. The real-life couple have the panache and polish of Fred & Ginger combined with the timing of Abbott and Costello. Each just consistently builds on small things the other does, creating something magnetic and mesmerizing in the process. Both have the capability to make you cry such as their touching work in “Blue Skies” or can make you laugh such as their battle of one-upsmanship in “Anything You Can Do”.
Both Barton and Kraft also get their own individual moments to shine. Barton will tickle your ribs as a draftee in World War I who just wants to sleep in as he sings “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” and brings you home for the holidays with his soaring tenor in “White Christmas”. Kraft is equally amusing in “Gee, I Wish I was Back in the Army” as she pines for the plethora of available soldiers and will make you swoon with “They Say it’s Wonderful”.
Cassie Slater and Karl Hamilton were the funniest couple of the afternoon. Both have astonishing comedic chops which they use to fullest potential. Their shining moment was “Let’s Go Slummin” as they delightfully spy on other classes to get their jollies. Hamilton also gets to show off his equally potent dramatic chops with my favorite song “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” as he plays an army sergeant trying to help his private get through the fear and loneliness of war. Likewise, Slater will stir your soul with the moving “Russian Lullaby”.
Last, but certainly not least, is the dynamic duo of Andrew Scoggin and Emily Gardenhire. Both also possess the grand gift of comedy and are the most symbiotic twosome as their best moments come in their duets as they usually play a couple who are not quite on the same page. Some of their best moments include the thoroughly entertaining “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” as an arguing couple who literally get caught in the spotlight. They can also be syrupy sweet as in the duet “Isn’t it a Lovely Day”. Or downright intimidating as they glare down an overexuberant bell ringer in “Lazy”.
Jennifer Hemphill’s choreography is elegant, expansive, and utterly perfect. Never is there a wasted bit of energy or step. Clayton Dornbach’s set gives off the sense of a Broadway theatre with is lighted columns and steps. Shon Causer’s lights really enhanced the production especially with emotional blues for some of the sadder numbers and the use of spotlights as police officers breaking up a speakeasy. Darrell Wagner’s costumes will take you on a trip through the decades with coats and tails, three piece suits, lovely dresses, and military fatigues. Mike Ekelburg’s sounds provided a subtle backdrop for the show and Kevin Casey and his band (Katie Hutton, Sophia Indelicato, Jordan Perry, Nick Welker, Jamie Baker) gave full justice to the score.
It truly is a show that has a little something for everyone (comedy, drama, acting, singing, and dancing) and a dandy kickoff to the MRT season.
I Love a Piano runs at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 11. Showtimes are at 2pm on June 27, 29-30, July 9 and 11 and at 7:30pm on June 27, July 2, 7, and 10. Tickets begin at $26 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 660-385-2924 or visiting www.maplesrep.com. Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.
Photo provided by Maples Repertory Theatre