THEATRE REVIEW: ‘Coming Back Like a Song!’ at Berkshire Theatre Festival — an unforgettable evening with Irving Berlin et alMore Info
Coming Back Like a Song!
By Lee Kalcheim
Songs by Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jimmy Van Heusen and their collaborators
Directed by Gregg Edelman
“What do you want? Respect and good pay?”
Three of America’s greatest 20th-century songwriters, following an ASCAP meeting, retire to Irving Berlin’s townhouse on Beekman Place in New York City on Christmas Eve afternoon in 1956. Berlin’s guests are Jimmy Van Heusen, writer of so many Frank Sinatra hits he cannot count them on his 10 fingers; and Harold Arlen, composer of “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather” and ballads that exploited the blues, that very American sound. These are old friends, well acquainted with each other’s histories and peccadillos. They don’t need to be introduced; their songs do that work for them. Lee Kalcheim’s “revuesical” has a basic book and a simple plot of how to keep Arlen happy in his uncomfortable situation his wife is confined to a sanatorium and he misses her terribly. Berlin gets it, Van Heusen doesn’t — hence the plot and the book. What these men do, mostly, is sing their songs, their own and each other’s. It’s 90 minutes you won’t easily forget as the art of song does its thing, covers over issues, releases tensions, relaxes inhibitions and solves psychological problems.
None of the actors looks exactly like the men they play, but with costumes, makeup and attitude, they bring these historic figures to life. The best of the bunch is David Garrison playing Irving Berlin. Always formal in his excellent suit and tie, always in charge in his own environment, always bordering on the judgmental side, Garrison’s Berlin is less a charmer than a termagant: an overbearing woman or shrew. He is constantly cleaning the environment, putting down his friends, making demands and telling others how to live their lives. Even so, he is charming when he compliments his composer friends. Garrison gets both sides of the man just right. In this instance, Berlin is furious about rock n’ roll taking over the business he has prospered in for so many years. He is upset with Elvis Presley and his own inability to write for the popular market any longer. His need to reclaim his role as pop music’s undisputed king drives the play through so many changes.
Garrison is great — that’s about all there is to it. He never shudders or shrugs off his character for an instant. He holds Berlin’s rightful place for the songwriter, bringing him to actual life on the Fitzpatrick Stage. He is a wonder, singing better than Berlin but less well than the usual Garrison. He captures the man with almost demonic accuracy. He has the bravado and the ego equally in check, exposing the devotion and single-minded direction of the emotional side of the man. He shows us Berlin’s almost worshipful relationship with other men who engaged in Berlin’s art form. He alone is worth the price of admission.
The more “Hollywood” side of the music business is represented by Jimmy Van Heusen as played by David Rasche. Unlike Berlin who was a song-plugger, singing waiter and vaudevillian (Harold Arlen was a well-respected band vocalist), Van Heusen was a man of the keyboard and not a singer. Rasche can sing but it is not his chief asset in this role. His good looks, mirroring Van Heusen’s, and his male ego are what get the foreground in Rasche’s performance. This character has a tendency toward total honesty, calling spades spades and telling things about his friends to their faces whether they appreciate it or not.
Van Heusen’s songs don’t go all the way to “I love you,” a concept the others have never emulated, and his songs become the hard acts to follow as they express so much without ever going all the way. His more casual attire, a nice touch by costume designer David Murin, is appropriate here, California rather than New York. Like his compatriots on stage, when he sits down at the piano and begins to play, he looks good, almost too good, and the talented musical hands of music director Daniel Mollett take center stage for a while. There is even a point where Rasche makes this poignantly clear, his hands nowhere near the instrument that is still playing.
For those in the audience who have difficulty with some of the plot points, let me just say that, back in 1956, telephones were large, sometimes clunky, instruments you found on tables with long wires and dials used to post your number on line. Having had a long discussion about millennials today, it seems important to bring up the fact that our modern technology didn’t exist and, on the Berkshire Theatre Group stage, the company is true to the period of the play — so none of those loud and intrusive “what’s that?” conversations, please!
The big surprise here is the performance by Philip Hoffman as Harold Arlen. One of America’s greatest songwriters and one of the most easily overlooked today, his work gave people careers — Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939 and, years later, Judy Garland in “A Star is Born” in 1954 when her career had basically ended. In both instances the song that made the role so memorable had been cut, “Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away,” only to be restored over protests from the producers. Arlen wrote them both and they are given beautiful performances in this show by Hoffman.
The show’s set, utilizing the full width of the stage, shows a good understanding of the era and the place by designer Randall Parsons, although some of the details are physically weak and not well-created. Similarly the natural lighting by Oliver Watson is shattered into poor mood work at times, which destroys the reality of a show that needs to remain real at all times. Edelman, the director, has crafted a sensitive play out of a jukebox collection of songs from the Great American Songbook. He starts with a strong set of images that mark Van Heusen’s “out-of-the-inner circle” position and yet stress the inclusiveness that later upset Harold Arlen.
If there is a “play” in this 89-minute one-act, it is centered on the emotional state of Arlen. The others talk about it, sing about it and encourage Arlen to deal directly with his personal issues. When he doesn’t, their attitudes change and it is Berlin who makes decisive moves to clear up Arlen’s ugly situation. Berlin is, naturally, always the leader. He is the man who has mastered the many changes in the music business since before World War I; he is the man who will continue to change his work and his vision into the 1960s. But as essential and important as the man was, the story remains Arlen’s.
This is an interesting, entertaining evening’s entertainment. It’s hard to tear down icons even when they get overthrown by circumstances anyway. “Coming Back Like a Song!” never really tries to do that. Instead, with about 35 songs, it buoys up their reputations while bringing them some long overdue humanity-showing frailties, emotional states and reputation-saving gestures. Good theater doesn’t have to be great theater and this offering is really good. Entertaining and enjoyable, you might say, and certainly worth 90 minutes of anybody’s time.
Coming Back Like a Song! plays on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus, 83 East Main St., Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through Saturday, July 21. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to www.berkshiretheatregroup.org or call the box office at (413) 997-4444.