In his 101 years on this planet, Irving Berlin wrote somewhere between 1250 and 1450 songs, 850 of which make up Wikipedia’s “Best Of Berlin” list. From very early 20th Century standards like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to 1966’s “An Old Fashioned Wedding,” written for the 20th Anniversary Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Berlin’s music and lyrics are synonymous with American Musical Theater.

You’ll only hear three dozen or so of Berlin’s hundreds of standards in Downey Civic Light Opera’s production of The Melody Lingers On: The Songs Of Irving Berlin, but what a terrific bunch of songs you will hear, including “I Love A Piano,” “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” and of course “White Christmas.”

Like last year’s Rodgers And Hart: A Celebration, The Melody Lingers On blends biographical information with songs, sort of like a cross between those 1950s-70s TV variety specials and a TheDocumentaryChannel biography.

Telling the story of her father’s life is Berlin’s adult daughter Mary Ellin, played by Katherine Henryk, who reads from Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir, while dad Irving’s music is sung and danced by John Racca as Berlin, Susan Dohan as his wife Ellin, and a cast of two dozen under the imaginative direction of Marsha Moode.

Equity performers Racca and Dohan add a professional sheen (and years of experience) to the production, singing and dancing their iconic roles to audience cheers.

The rest of the cast (Raul Avina, Sydney Blair, Jessica Brusilow, Steven Chavarria, Crystal Cooper, William Crisp, Christopher Curry, Greg Hardash, Stephen Henry, Aspen Krafft, Valerie Jasso, Chloe Leatherwood, Denai Lovrien, Michael McGreal, Aleesha McNeff, Jonathan Messer, Joan Perkins, Christina Putrelo, Peter Schueller, Carolyn Schultz, Genevieve Taricco, Matthew Thurmond, Kyle Van Amburgh, Dee Wilson, Kit Wilson, and Frances Wulke) is made up of Downey CLO veterans and newcomers with a single aim—to entertain.

Director Moode gives many cast members their moment in the spotlight.

Dancers Curry and Thurmond join Racca for “I Love A Piano;” Crisp, Henry, McGreal, and Wilson join voices in four-part harmony for “Mandy,” and Crisp solos “The Girl On The Magazine Cover” and “White Christmas,” the later also featuring Schueller, Perkins, and Wulke. Schueller shows off his tenor pipes in “When I Lost You” and “Cheek To Cheek,” dancing the latter with Lovrien in Fred-and-Ginger mode.

McGreal dons army gear to sing a humorous “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning;” McNeff and Curry duet “You’d Be Surprised;” and Wilson, Krafft, and Cooper perform “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.” Jasso and company jazz it up with “When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’;” Jasso sizzles again in “Heat Wave;” and Curry, Schueller, and Thurmond tap their toes to “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” (In a curious case of Grammatical Correctness, the company sing “PuttinG” rather than “Puttin’.”)

Van Amburg gets his solo spot with “Say It Isn’t So,” Curry and Putrelo back up Racca on “Change Partners,” and McNeff solos “Let Yourself Go.” Cooper belts out “You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun;” and Jasso and Schueller duet 1950’s “It’s A Lovely Day Today/You’re Just In Love.” (The script errs in saying that the latter was Berlin’s last composition written in counterpoint, i.e. “a main melody with a secondary melody running at the same time, both with independent lyrics.” In fact, the composer’s final counterpoint song was “An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” written sixteen years later.) Wilson leads the company and audience in a stirring “God Bless America.”

The rest of the numbers (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “What’ll I Do,” “Play A Simple Melody,” “Remember,” “How Deep Is The Ocean,” “Always,” “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” “All Alone/Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”) go to the stellar Racca and Dohan. The entire company performs “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now” and “Blue Skies/Shaking The Blues Away.”

Choreographic whiz Cate Caplin gets the multi-leveled cast dancing to Berlin’s catchy melodies. Musical director Jimmy Vann does first-rate work conducting the Downey CLO Orchestra. Technical director Gary Richardson, lighting designer Kim Killingsworth, sound designer Jay Lee, costume designer Erica D. Schwartz, and set designer Mark W. Weller all get thumbs up for their efforts and results. Sally Casey Bell is stage manager.

The Melody Lingers On: The Songs Of Irving Berlin will be entertaining audiences for the next three weeks as Moode and the Downey CLO gear up for the season closer, the much-awaited revival of the rarely-performed Funny Girl. 1993’s DCLO production featured a young musical theater performer named Stephanie J. Block, at the beginning of her journey to Broadway stardom. This reviewer for one can’t wait to learn who’ll be stepping into Block’s shoes when the Jule Stein-Bob Merrill-Isobel Lennart hit opens in June.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey.
–Steven Stanley
February 18, 2011

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