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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the December 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Let Me Sing’

If virtual reality is getting you down, take time to

savor the reality of real fantasy — those fantasies of stardom

that have long acted as the engines driving American musical theater.

Onstage at George Street Playhouse you can find Broadway at home in

New Jersey for the holidays with a zestful banquet of song, dance

— and history — all wrapped up in a new musical "Let Me

Sing: A Musical Evolution." The show (which is a lot like a revue)

was created by Michael Bush, with Michael Aman and Joel Silberman.

Lending its talent to this world premiere production is a magnificent

six-member ensemble: Stephanie Block, Gretha Boston, Andre De Shields,

Danny Gurwin, Marla Schaffel, and Randy Skinner. Actor and dancer

Skinner performs multiple jobs as an outstanding tap dancer (slightly

overused) and the show’s choreographer, and the non-stop musical accompaniment

is led by Joel Silberman on piano.

This lovely fare traces an American artistic journey through the beginnings

of modern musical theater at the turn of the 20th century all the

way to the 1940s. And although the song and dance hails from the dawn

of the 20th century, the author’s orientation is far more sophisticated.

Broadway devotees and neophytes will all find food for thought in

this intelligent story, which celebrates the great melting pot of

American culture at the same time as it traces the diverging paths

of its winners and losers.

A Scott Joplin rag haunts the evening. This rag, which we hear at

the opening, is the kind of dazzling musical innovation that made

the American musical a home-grown art form. African Americans seemed

to have provided the crucible into which other groups — particularly

Irish and Eastern European immigrants — introduced their own talents,

resulting in altogether new forms of popular song and dance.

From its turn-of-the-century parasols and derby hats to 1940s silk

stockings and chenille, suggestions of a story line are enough reason

for "Let Me Sing’s" non-stop succession of musical numbers.

It runs two-and-a-half hours with intermission.

Engaging and tuneful, the charming period piece begins with a rousing

salute to 1900, introducing a complement of Broadway hopefuls all

flushed with hope for the future. Six characters converge from all

points: from the South, from the West and Midwest, from across the

Atlantic, and from Orchard Street, New York. The show takes its title

and signature song from Irving Berlin’s "Let Me Sing and I’m Happy"

of 1928. As each character enters singing a verse or two, they tell

us how they hope to make their mark on the Great White Way.

The program tells us that these six are loosely modeled on six ethnic

types who trod the boards of the time — George M. Cohan, Molly

Picon, Irene Dunne, Ethel Waters, Fred Astaire, and Bill "Bojangles"

Robinson. And despite the "melting pot" theme of invention

and innovation, race becomes a major thread in this "musical evolution."

The banquet of songs is familiar — but not too familiar. "Someone

to Watch Over Me," "Look for the Silver Lining" and "Alexander’s

Ragtime Band" are naturals, each performed as if it were brand

new. And the show also offers plenty of lesser-known, merit-worthy,

and often funny songs. George Cohan’s "20th Century Love"

is marvelous in its anachronistic "modernity."

The most shocking of these little known songs was, for me, the lament

"Suppertime" by Irving Berlin (1933) — beautifully performed

by Gretha Boston. While we all know "Summertime," this song

is a direct response to the pervasive lynchings of its time, a time

when, for this Southern wife and mother, "that man of mine ain’t

coming home no more."

Highlighting the issue of skin color is Andre De Shields’

brilliant and chilling performance of "Nobody" of 1905. In

this tragic-comic number De Shields portrays Bert Williams, a mixed-race

entertainer trapped in the racist world of the minstrel show.

He sits as if the audience were his dressing room mirror, and we watch

the gifted vaudevillian hold a cork over a candle, blacken his face,

and then smear on the preposterous white mouth, all the while singing

his comic song, "Nobody." Rising to dance his routine, De

Shields also offers us a fabulously sensuous soft shoe, layered with

African dance references.

De Shields, an original Broadway cast member of "The Full Monty"

(all the cast carry such gold-plated credentials) is equally astonishing

in the period piece "Shine," written in 1909.

The show’s rousing (and somewhat hasty) closing features Rodgers and

Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" (1943) sung by an ensemble all dressed

in khaki preparing to ship off to war. It closes by returning us to

the conciliatory spirit of 1900 with James Johnson’s "Lift Every

Voice and Sing," the enduring anthem of the NAACP.

Resourceful costume designer Robert Croghan also surprises with imaginative

— and simply smashing — clothes that allow the small cast

to take on all kinds of different looks from 1900 to mid-century.

The single delightful (and delightfully simple) set by Anna Louizos

sparkles throughout, featuring old-fashioned footlights and rich red

velvet drapes, tied with gold tassels, cascading from a proscenium

arch. All serve to remind us that then, as now, we relish the theater

for the ways it makes even its audience feel like royalty for one

night.

— Nicole Plett

Let Me Sing, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $36 to $60. Show runs through

January 4.


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