Theatre Review: ‘Irving Berlin’s America’ at O’Connell & Company

“Irving Berlin’s America,” now onstage at O’Connell & Company, is one wonderful tune after another against a story that’s based on the celebrated songwriter’s robust rags to riches 101 year life.

. . . very entertaining performances, lovely singing, and the good vibes that remind you Berlin’s music will endure “not for just an hour, not for just day, not for just a year, but always.”

William Group and Matthew Mooney as Berlin and his mysterious nighttime visitor Jack belt and croon their way through a small but endearing collection of Berlin tunes (with a few from the pen George M. Cohan, too) in this musical send up. Their twin tenors blend and harmonize perfectly and they nail every note and clever lyric. In just two hours, they sing and dance through 28 bits and pieces of perfectly wonderful Americana. Music director Susan Shaw is their offstage accompanist who did a heck of a job making the digital keyboard sound like a vintage upright stride from the jazz age.

The story line itself is oddly disconcerting: Berlin is painting at an easel, in his bathrobe, when Jack appears in his presumably locked home. Jack coaxes Berlin’s life story from him, from his struggles as a Russian immigrant, from his earliest tunesmith days, to his brief marriage to Buffalo gal Dorothy Goetz, his 12 year grief after her sad death, and his marriage to wealthy Catholic Ellin whose father disapproved of the marriage. Playwright Chip Deffaa’s dialogue is stilted and strained, and Group and Mooney do their best with it. It’s the constant roll of songs that keeps the audience engaged and wanting more. Deffaa’s song choice spans the familiar – “I Love a Piano” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” heading the list – to songs that maybe aren’t top of mind, like “The Circus is Coming To Town.” Missing from the rich rundown are the show stoppers from “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam” and beloved pieces like “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.”  After Mooney’s beautifully plaintive “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” I would have loved to hear his treatment of “Always.”  Group’s poignant performance of Berlin’s first ballad “When I Lost You” is so exquisitely tender, I would have loved to have heard what he did with “What’ll I Do.” But with 1500 songs from which to chose, something had to be left behind. The hits you love most get a wink and a nod in the script, with some storytelling in between.  Listen carefully for bits of Berlin and pop song trivia, too. Here’s a hint: the two or three times Berlin mentions wanting “another cup of coffee and another piece of pie” is – no surprise – lyrics from one of his 1923 compositions.  And the date so conveniently mentioned in Act 1 – September 22, 1989 – is the date of Berlin’s death.

Because the music is so grand and the plot line is an odd mix of biography and allegory (is Jack the Grim Reaper or the spirit of Berlin’s deceased son coming to bring him to his heavenly home?), I chose to stay locked into the music. Group plays Berlin with an endearing blend of nebbish charm with a touch of grumpy old man. As he says, “I write simple songs. I’m a simple man.”  He sums up Berlin’s life as the most published and popular songwriter of his time, saying “It’s given me everything by giving me what I wanted to be.”

Mooney tap dances and sings his way into your heart. (Watch him in Act 1: he slyly slides from tap shoes to soft shoes with some on stage magic). I couldn’t help but notice a few opening night dropped lines and a distracting problem with flickering lights. Group and Mooney rise above this with very entertaining performances, lovely singing, and the good vibes that remind you Berlin’s music will endure “not for just an hour, not for just day, not for just a year, but always.”

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“Irving Berlin’s America” runs until December 17, 2017 and is presented at O’Connell & Company at The Park School of Buffalo. For more information, click here.