Songs for America, bother from another planet

In review: Irving Berlin's "The Melody Lingers On!" at Clackamas Rep and Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet" at Lakewood

If we really wanted to make America great again, we’d skip all the nonsense about building walls and stoking resentments and keeping out foreigners and just bring back Irving Berlin. Oh, wait: Looks like Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s already done that.

Berlin, who was born in 1888 as Israel Beilin, became an American icon the old-fashioned way: He immigrated to the U.S., from the old Russian Empire. By age 5 he was settled with his family in New York City, and grew up on the Lower East Side when it was cheap and crowded with people from other places, seeking what was once known proudly as “a better life.” He hawked newspapers on the streets and became a singing waiter and started writing songs and had his first big hit on Tin Pan Alley in 1911, when he was 23 – the still familiar Alexander’s Ragtime Band. From there he just kept going and going, through war and peace and the Depression and another war and some boom years and the nation’s evolution from isolationism to internationalism, creating a big slice of the American popular soundtrack from the days of the Charleston through the Broadway musical’s golden age. He died, finally, at age 101, when rock ‘n’ roll had pretty much killed off his kind of music – except, of course, it hasn’t, because it’s with us still.

Meredith Kaye Clark in “The Melody Lingers On!” Photo: Sam Ortega

The proof of that particular pudding, if you need proof, is onstage at Clackamas Rep, where the upbeat and winning revue of Berlin tunes The Melody Lingers On! opened over the weekend and continues through August 27. A mostly bright selection of almost fifty of Berlin’s roughly 1,500 songs presented by a snappy cast in a sharp-looking production, it’s a brightly rhythmic show of song and dance about a composer who made people feel good about being part of America, no matter where they might have come from or where they stood in the national pecking order. Berlin could be dark, but even then he was dark in an enthralling way; mostly he wrote catchy, hummable, optimistic songs that helped project the myth of a can-do country and a people on the rise.

It’s been Irving Berlin season in Oregon lately, with The Melody Lingers On! following The Shedd’s revival in December of Annie Get Your Gun in Eugene, the one-man show Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at Portland Center Stage at roughly the same time, and a full-day celebration today (Tuesday, Aug. 8) at the Oregon Festival of American Music in Eugene of Berlin’s life and songs. Felder’s show emphasized the tough work, personal trials, and corrosive streak that shaped the man who made the music. The Melody Lingers On!, conceived by Karin Baker and taking dialogue from the book Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir by Mary Ellin Barrett, brings up the crises but concentrates, much more optimistically, on the communal catchiness of the songs. Together, the two shows make a nice matched set, a kind of yin and yang of musical and cultural biography.

The Melody Lingers On! is co-directed by David Smith-English and by Wesley “Angel” Hanson, who is also choreographer, simulating several decades’ worth of popular dance styles, from restrained early-twentieth-century social dancing to Jazz Age razzmatazz to Fred-and-Ginger hijinks and beyond, with a healthy snap of tap. The action flows on a bright and adaptable set framed with piano keyboard images by the talented Christopher D. Whitten; a fine six-person band led by Lars Campbell sits upstage like the orchestra at a vintage supper club, channeling the lively and assured orchestrations by Donald Johnstone, whose vocal arrangements also feature some superb and sometimes unexpected harmonies that add some ribs and sinew to the backbone of Berlin’s memorable melodies. Johnstone is fond of mimicking the old musical-stage trick of beginning a song slowly and deliberately, lagging the beat, and gradually speeding things up to a sock-it-to-me ending. And costume designer Alva Bradford has great fun recreating a hit parade of styles from vested suits to evening gowns to Army khaki to ostrich plumes, which the show’s ten performers switch in and out of quicker than a reshuffling of White House aides in the West Wing. If I could tell you who those ultra-efficient backstage dressers were, I would.

Don Kenneth Mason, with Allesondra Helwig and the band. Photo: Sam Ortega

The show is for the most part tightly paced and the singing is variable but always at least serviceable and in most cases considerably more than that. At the core are Mont Chris Hubbard (who is also the show’s vocal director) as Berlin, singing with an appealing straightforwardness and sitting down now and again to play a few bars at the piano; and the wonderful Meredith Kaye Clark as Irving’s two wives (Dorothy, who died from typhoid fever five months after they were married, and Ellin, to whom he was married for 62 years). Clark is not so much a showstopper as a superb pacesetter, laying out the possibilities in the music with lovely control on the likes of What’ll I Do?, How Deep Is the Ocean, Always, All Alone, and They Say It’s Wonderful. A fine chorus consisting of the men James Dixon, Kevin Minkoff, Don Kenneth Mason, and Matthew Brown, and the women Lauren Steele, Caitlin Brooke, Natalie Mallak, and Allesondra Helwig, step in and out of roles with vocal and physical dexterity, each taking the spotlight at one time or another – Brooke and Brown, for instance, on the early novelty tune Snookey Ookums; Brooke on You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun, the Ethel Merman hit from Annie Get Your Gun; Helwig and Dixon on a brisk I Got the Sun in the Morning.

On Sunday afternoon the fine blues and gospel singer LaRhonda Steele gave a guest performance of the deep and anguished Supper Time, upsetting the applecart of light entertainment by chillingly capturing the devastation of a woman whose husband has been lynched and won’t be coming home. The song plays a similar role to that of Black and Blue in the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’, stripping back the jollity to reveal the depths of pain the good times often hide. She was onstage with her daughter, Lauren Steele, who was playing the role of Kathy, which will be played by the musical-stage star Susannah Mars for the rest of the run. Mars is a big draw for excellent reason and no doubt will be superb, particularly on the likes of the Merman anthem You’re Just in Love, from Call Me Madam. But it was a treat to see Lauren Steele, a young performer who is heading back to begin her junior year in theater and playwriting at Southern Methodist University. She has a keen stage presence and a cultivated, smokier, jazzier singing style – not the clarion call of a thousand bright cornets that Merman perfected and audiences either loved or loved to hate, but distinctive and appealing. She’s a talent to keep an eye on. And this is a show to give a spin. If it can’t by itself make America great again, it can at least remind us of the possibilities inherent in a diverse and forward-thinking nation, and help keep it from tweeting into the abyss.

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If The Melody Lingers On! suggests that we can build a better nation if we just ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive (a tune by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, not Irving Berlin) and sing better songs, Visit to a Small Planet suggests it’s going to take a little pluck and a whole lot of luck if we’re going to get out of here alive. Gore Vidal’s 1957 play, which continues through Sunday at Lakewood Theatre in a production directed by Tobias Andersen, feels very much a period piece – more so, intriguingly, than the Berlin revue – but also has some fascinating contemporary reverberations.

Visit to a Small Planet, which began as a television play in 1955, moved to the Broadway stage in 1957, and became a wide-release movie in 1960 starring Jerry Lewis as Kreton, an intelligent yet impulsive and childish sort of freelance anthropologist from outer space with a meddling streak and a Conradian impulse to lord it over the inferior aliens (that would be us) into whose world he’s inserted himself.

Jeremy Southard as the alien Kreton and Erik James as General Tom Powers in Lakewood’s “Visit to a Small Planet.” Photo: Triumph Photography

The chills and thrills and deep absurdities of Cold War America and its paranoia about aliens (at the time, mostly the Russians and their real or imagined U.S. fellow travelers) underly Vidal’s tale and Lakewood’s production, which features a cheekily abrasive Jeremy Southard as the bother from another planet who mistakenly guides his flying saucer into the suburban Washington, D.C. garden of a pompous television political commentator (Todd Hermanson) and his cozily ordered suburban family. (Kreton had been aiming for the Battle of Bull Run, hoping to observe an actual primitive human battle, but was a century off the mark.) The military gets involved, of course, largely in the person of a general (Erik James) whose specialty is devising an efficient laundry system, and there are perky young lovers (Melissa Sondergeld, Paul Harestad) whose concerns naturally override the survival of the planet. Vidal is nothing if not cuttingly glib here, although compared to his incisive political essays and the deep cultural analyses of his historical novels such as Burr and Lincoln, Visit to a Small Planet feels more light and playful, a bit closer to his slyly entertaining murder mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box.

The whole thing spins out on yet another smart and playable set by Chris Whitten (who also designed The Melody Lingers On!) and, while it has its ups and downs, conveys the broad and weary wink of Vidal’s knowing comic (in this case, almost comic-book) style – and all to a witty soundtrack by sound designer Marcus Storey of period songs from The Little Blue Man to Purple People Eater.

Roiling beneath Vidal’s outlandish sci-fi story is something much more earthbound: a wry look at how personal ambition, force of habit, and bureaucratic stasis largely dictate the course of politics even in the most dire of times. In Vidal’s sly and borderline-cynical telling, it’s not good old American level-headedness and resolve that ultimately save the day and the planet. It’s a higher form of interstellar bureaucracy, a universal cop of sorts, a deus ex machina from another planet. We are, after all, not that very important in the universal scheme of things: Kreton’s pinched and hauled away not to save Earth’s humans but because he’s violated interplanetary rules. Against the usurper, bureaucracy wins. Or so we can hope.

 

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