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