PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ
National Jewish Theater
ZIEGFELD, A NIGHT AT THE FOLLIES
Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace
It’s hard to know who to praise more in the National Jewish Theater’s Puttin’ On the Ritz: An Irving Berlin American Songbook: Sheldon Patinkin for creating a revue as rich as his material and for staging it with industrial-strength pizzazz; Jim Corti for his period-perfect choreography, with the two-step, Charleston, swing, and tap rivaling one another for authenticity; Kingsley Day, whose sure-handed musical direction and supple arrangements bring out the strength of each song; set designers Richard and Jacqueline Penrod, whose cream-colored bandstand is framed by a giant golden fan; or the six-member cast, who hoof and croon, strut and soar to beat the band–without miking, as God meant it to be.
It’s easy to know who to praise most–Irving Berlin, whose works, effortlessly happy and unashamedly melodic, will live forever. The 70 songs (out of 1,000) all but showcase themselves, though it’s hard to imagine a more persuasive package than this one, a surefire summer hit. As in Patinkin’s Kurt Weill tribute Listen to My Song, the songs get center stage. Nothing connects them but themselves, but that’s linkage enough.
Patinkin’s dazzler assembles well-loved and less-known tunes from Berlin’s half century in show biz, songs he poured out for vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood, from the Ziegfeld Follies to his late-blooming Ethel Merman vehicles Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. (Perhaps for licensing reasons, Berlin’s most famous songs–“God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”–are presented as snippets from the band.)
The delightful survey traces Berlin’s musical development: his early novelty-ethnic numbers (“Cohen Owes Me Ninety-seven Dollars,” a rare revelation of his Jewish roots), his infatuation with ragtime (the rhythms borrowed from black composers) in hits like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “International Rag,” showstoppers (“A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”), rousers from the Roaring 20s (“It All Belongs to Me”), and his wildly successful, sentimental sheet-music hits (“All Alone” and “Always,” reduced here to a bad joke).
Characteristically, it was hard times and wartime that let Berlin reach his personal best; he had a genius for taking a nation’s pulse and supplying the right musical medicine. He found the universal in war’s particulars; “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” captures everyone’s loathing for a lousy job. No depression got better consolation prizes than “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” or “A Couple of Swells” (a jaunty salute to homelessness). In his 1933 song “Supper Time” Berlin even wrote a powerful blues song, sung by a black woman who can’t bring herself to tell her kids their father won’t come home–he was just lynched.
The stream of songs isn’t always chronological; melodies from 1936 are mixed into “The First War” scene, and the Depression scene is represented by Jazz Age numbers. In the brilliant second act the arrangements are usually thematic (torch songs, “love and the weather,” tunes for top hat, cane, white tie, tails, and taps). The result is a clever dialogue between the ballads; the 1950 duet “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” for instance, is wryly linked to the 1939 song “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”
Faithful and forceful, Day’s musical direction and Corti’s dances respect the tempi and the period; of course the songs are strong enough to be jazzed up or slowed down, but in their original form they glow. The cast clearly feel this, whether scorching the stage in Carmen Miranda costumes for “Heat Wave” or tapping terrifically in “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” Inevitably the suave Seth Swoboda and the smooth Linda Leonard recall Fred and Ginger as they sing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” but their sincerity makes it their own. And when Anne Kanengeiser and Swoboda do a gleeful Castle Walk to “Mandy,” vaudeville is far from dead.
Kanengeiser practically purrs her way through “I Got Lost in His Arms,” and Christopher DeAngelis rediscovers simple heartbreak in “Remember.” Nancy Voigts provides some combustible comedy when she belts out “I Love a Piano” and “You’re Just in Love,” in which she’s joined by the irrepressible Frank Farrell. Farrell, game to do whatever, is the key to this show’s success. It’s not just a case of flawless execution, though his loose-limbed Ray Bolger style is deceptively simple and his Irish tenor an unfailing delight. It’s that he knows the trick is to look like you’d pay to do this.
Helping to launch Berlin’s career was the Chicago-born impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, the perfecter, for better or worse, of the American show girl, “glorified” as she sashayed down staircases, smiling blandly and covered in glitz.
Earlier this season Ziegfeld made a cameo appearance (through the voice of Gregory Peck) in the listless homage The Will Rogers Follies. In Dallet Norris’s clever pastiche Ziegfeld, a Night at the Follies, now playing Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, the showman remains offstage, but his influence is everywhere–in the breakneck burlesque, the extravagant costume parades, and the cornball sentiment. Adding to the schmaltz are tunes by Berlin, Cole Porter, Vernon Duke, Frank Loesser, and Jerome Kern. Try to imagine the Ziegfeld Follies without that gorgeous procession to Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” or an Eddie Cantor wannabe (David Nehls) bouncing around to De Sylva and Meyer’s “If You Knew Susie.”
The cliche-loving plot, about three hopefuls who desert their boring boyfriends to become Ziegfeld stars, is the pretext for lavish production numbers and novelty songs. Of course the boyfriends pursue them to New York, where, thanks to dream sequences that double as Follies spectacles, the couples work out their conflicts.
In Andrew Leech’s staging the old standards (“You Stepped Out of a Dream,” “I Only Have Eyes for You”) are delivered with enough moxie to light up Broadway–no condescension, no campy cuteness, no updating of rhythms or harmonies for jaded contemporary tastes, and above all no sniggering at an earlier era’s overkill (for vulgarity and venality Ziegfeld had nothing on Cameron Mackintosh or Garth Drabinsky).
The perky and preliberated Follies girls are ex-farm girl Mary (Aimee Devlin), former switchboard operator Mitzi (Judy Walstrum), and society girl Madeline (Cheryl Sylvester). When not dancing, they’re belting out, and each gets a solo she definitely earns (especially Walstrum’s moving “My Old Flame”). The women are neatly matched with hayseed John (Guy Adkins), prudish Junior (Drew Taylor), and Brooklyn-basic Joe (Patrick Wetzel), each a classic comic doofus.
The couplings provide no end of musical opportunities: the men wail Berlin’s torch song “What’ll I Do” in harmony, the women burn up the stage with “They All Need a Little Hot-Cha,” John and Mary hoof it to the strains of “Easy to Love,” and they all burst into “Taking a Chance on Love.” The less well known “The Harlem Waltz” is charmingly performed by Cheridah Best and Garland Days.
Dispensing cynical wisdom are the veteran, gum-cracking Follies stars (Kelly Prybycien, Pam Harden, and Tammy Ann Mader), whose hard-boiled, gold-digging advice about men comes down to “If you’ve got curves, they’ve got angles” and “If they want to play ball, they’d better bring their own diamond.”
The eye-popping chorus numbers include “Do the New York,” a sprawling androgynous romp with the cast in top hats and tails with canes, dancing as if they were paid by the tap. In flaming red spangles and not much else, the women do a teasing fan dance to “Too Marvelous for Words.”
The dream sequences, where characters fly (courtesy of the Foy firm) as freely as they do in dreams, take us to a mock cannibal village (Cole Porter’s hilarious “Find Me a Primitive Man”), an underwater realm (where mermaids perform “Shakin’ the Blues Away”), a toyland (where the women do a kick line to “The Toy Trumpet”), and a spangled heaven where Mary and John, joined by the Stars, Planets, and Comets, perform “Stairway to the Stars.” Jeff Max sings the chorines’ ballads with icy charm.
Nehls, the young, hammy comic who cuts up as Eddie Cantor, gets the sexist catalog song “A Girl for Each Month of the Year” as his big number, a throwback to vaudeville’s smarmiest scenes.
The disciplined dynamo here is Karlah Hamilton, who reinvents the wit in Porter’s true confession “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love” and his surprisingly unpatriotic “Lost Liberty Blues.” In moments like these Ziegfeld turns wiser than spectacle.