COMING BACK LIKE A SONG! Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge

What makes a great songwriter tick? That question gets answered, sprinkled with tantalizing inside- baseball showbiz history, most innovatively in the world premiere of COMING BACK LIKE A SONG! on the Fitzpatrick Stage of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge. Emmy-winning author Lee Kalcheim imaginatively posits three great songmasters - Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Huesen - gathering at Christmas time 1956 in Berlin’s Manhattan apartment after an ASCAP meeting. Bemoaning the rise of Elvis and Rock n’ Roll, and realizing their kind of songwriting gig is up, the three journey down memory lane.

For a blissful 85 minutes, they turn to Berlin’s grand piano, to revisit not just their signature songs - Berlin’s “White Christmas”, Arlen's “Over the Rainbow” and Van Heusen’s “All the Way" - but also almost three dozen tunes from their illustrious careers. Deftly, Kalcheim has composed a book that fleshes out these songwriters, and director Gregg Edelman and music director Daniel Mollett have collaborated so that the songs segue naturally from the conversation about the trio's career ups and downs and their personal joys and disappointments. The trio joke about the songwriters’ rule to never write a love song with the actual phrase “I Love You” (there’s a charming scene with the guys all at the piano in a medley of their songs about love that flirt with the rule) but, amidst all the marvelous tunes and lively wise-guy banter, love has everything to do with COMING BACK LIKE A SONG! Harold Arlen’s heart is breaking because his wife, to whom he’s been loyal for decades, is pretty much permanently hospitalized after a lifelong struggle with mental illness. Van Heusen, in contrast, is a playboy (and patron of prostitutes), incapable of committed relationship. Berlin, although happily married a second time, still carries the loss of his first wife (for whom he wrote “Always” and who died after only 6 months of marriage) and a son who died (on a Christmas day).

Kalcheim quietly builds conflict especially between Van Heusen and Arlen about their opposing moral values and in the trio’s natural competitiveness. In the old friends' reverie, mixed-in are delicious bits of show biz gossip - about Van Heusen’s buddy Frank Sinatra, how MGM’s Irving Thalberg tried to cut “Over the Rainbow” from the WIZARD OF OZ, and Ethel Merman’s peculiar vocabulary.

There’s pure delight in hearing these pros (both characters and actors) go at it on the keyboards. (In a theatrical sleight of hand, music director Mallet offstage is the pianist.) My favorite trio number was “Lydia the Tattoo Lady”, Arlen’s composition with lyricist Yip Harburg that Groucho Marx performed in COCONUTS. When it comes to witty and double-entendre rhyming, Sondheim eat you’re heart out. Kalcheim’s dialogue is crisp, and snappy. Arlen, son of a cantor, gripes “What good is Christmas?” Van Heusen quips “Hell, Irving got a song out of it”

Casting is superb. David Rasher brings a macho bravura to Van Heusen that disguises an unfulfilled sensitivity. Phillip Hoffman as Arlen wears his vulnerability on his sleeve to especially touching effect in arresting solos of “Over The Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away” and in an inspired (but all too brief) duet adaptation that pairs Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” with Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”

But it’s David Garrison as Berlin who gets the best part, the most complicated, multilayered character. Hugely successful though he was, Berlin has a chip on his shoulder. After the breakthrough success of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” he had to prove he could do more than bar room ragtime jazz. He gave the young Gershwin a break, but it was Gershwin’s work that critics revered as a “serious’ art. (There’s a wonderful scene where Berlin demonstrates how a simple composition takes more genius.) He built the Music Box theatre to produce his own shows but lost it in the Depression. Even after the enduring success of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN ("of course, I could do that score"having been asked to compose only after Jerome Kern died), he was miffed CALL ME MADAM didn’t get the attention he thought it deserved. There was, of course, anti-Semitism along the way, which spiked with accusations of “marrying-up” with his second wife from a prominent, wealthy Irish Catholic family.

Berlin armors himself with self-deprecation: to a telephone operator who doesn’t believe he’s really Irving Berlin after singing the opening bars of his “God Bless America” he snipes what did you expect, Kate Smith? (I’m paraphrasing.) Under every big ego lies menacing insecurity.

Garrison’s Berlin epitomizes with steady, silent resolve “the show must go on” personality. Berlin carried the burden of celebrity, unlike the lesser publicly known Arlen and Van Heusen, and understood the responsibility of being rich and famous. In the end he acts selflessly to help his old friends. The show concludes with the beloved “White Christmas” but Berlin’s final, simple declaration that follows (no spoiler here) really says it all.

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