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Tin Pan Alley pounds, struts, wows in ‘I Love A Piano’

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

November 10, 2016

 

 The Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents “I Love A Piano” in the Stackner Cabaret. It features Kelley Faulkner, Eric Shorey, Jane Labanz and Steve Watts.
Michael Brosilow

MILWAUKEE — I’m having a “Ragtime” moment, which translates to what I felt when experiencing that musical treat three years ago. I was almost beyond words after that show. The same is true of “I Love A Piano,” which features the music of Irving Berlin a la 50 songs and four dazzling performers. I considered writing “Wow” 500 times and calling it quits.

The productions offered at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stacker Cabaret are usually very good, but occasionally a show comes along that deserves the highest award for stunning entertainment. This time Berlin provided the tunes; James Zager, the amazingly creative and fast-paced choreography; William Boles, the scenic design that bespoke many reminders of our American past; Sally Dolembo, whose costume design reminded us of fashion changes; and JC Clementz and Dan Kazemi, who contributed excellent overall direction.

But the greatest admiration belongs to the deserving four actors/singers/ pianists who occupied that stage for two hours and gave us one of the most rousing performances I’ve ever witnessed.

The piano itself should be mentioned as the key prop. It was an old upright with one sour key, a piano that was wheeled around frequently and played with gusto by one, two, three or even all four actors together at times.

Berlin’s works, which included more than 1,000 songs, several musicals and scores for many films, represent the best of American music. He composed beyond half a century, after which he started his own music publishing company and built a theater called the Music Box. He was remembered for his range of music, his philanthropy and his love of America. His classic “God Bless America” attests to his love and respect for the beauty and privileges we are blessed to share.

The repertory included some of his most popular tunes, such as his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Easter Parade,” White Christmas,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Blue Skies,” “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Always” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” but there were many others not as popular though still memorable, such as “All By Myself,” “Anything You Can Do,” “Count Your Blessings” and “We’re a Couple of Swells.”

Songs that came out of the World War II experience included, “O, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This is the Army,” “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen” and “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army.”

Beautiful ballads that were very moving included “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “What’ll I Do,” “Suppertime,” “Say It Isn’t So” and “Russian Lullaby.” Berlin was born in Russia.

Each performer has a unique style, but when they blend together it is a beautifully nuanced mix.

Kelley Faulkner has a brassy Broadway-belter style; Jane Labanz, a softer, mellower sound; Steve Watts, a range of emotional tones and facial expressions; and Eric Shorey, a strong, but almost dulcet resonance. They can all strut, stomp, dance, cavort, amuse and move. They made complexity look easy and kept us enthralled without a lapse. Their last number, “I Love a Piano,” has a nostalgic feeling about it. We didn’t want the show to end. It was WOW, WOW, WOW all the way, period, amen.

Because this show has such a long run, you might want to give a couple of tickets as a Christmas gift.
 

At a glance

“I Love A Piano”
The musical runs through Jan. 15 at the Stackner Cabaret Theater, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Call 414-224-9490 or visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com.