Reviewed by Chuck Lavazzi
One of the wonderful things about the Grand Center Cabaret series - aside from its ability to attract the kind of big-name talent that you'd otherwise have to travel to New York to see - is the fact that, after eleven seasons, it still manages to surprise and delight. Just when you think you've seen every possible version of a cabaret act, another one comes along that you hadn't thought of.
It's like having Christmas on a monthly basis, starting just after Labor Day.
The sparkling holiday surprise this year is KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler's ALWAYS - the Love Story of Irving Berlin, now on stage at the Sheldon. Something of a cross between a cabaret concert and a book musical, ALWAYS is a scripted and meticulously staged biography of one of America's greatest (and, along with Eubie Blake, one the longest-lived) songwriters, told to the tune of over fifty (!) of Berlin's own songs. It's called The Love Story of Irving Berlin because the story of Berlin's long life is, inevitably, the story of those he loved. That includes those he lost (like his sister, father, his first wife and - most tragically - his baby son) and the one he didn't: his wife of 62 years, the former heiress Ellen Mackay.
Disclaimer: I'm normally not much for biographies of artists. I prefer to let them speak through their art. Still, there's no escaping the fact that the joys and sorrows of Berlin's love life are clearly reflected in his songs, just as there's no escaping the fact that Berlin's life was inextricably bound up with Ellin's. When she died at the age of 84, it was a signal that Berlin's time was almost up as well; and, in fact, the composer died two years later at the age of 101.
Besides, it's just impossible to resist a biography when it's told in such a completely entertaining and captivating fashion.
The show's structure is innovative. Rather than simply string together related sets of Berlin songs interspersed with biographical tidbits, Nadler and Sullivan interweave the story of Berlin's life with extended medleys of those songs. Sometimes you get a verse or two, sometimes little more than a melodic fragment, and often two completely different songs combined in the kind of point-counterpoint duet that was one of Berlin's trademarks (think “You're Just in Love”, “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil”, or “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” - all of which show up during the evening). The overall effect is almost cinematic and slightly dizzying - a sort of cabaret equivalent of a good Firesign Theatre album, albeit without the drug jokes.
The results are often quite funny, given that both Nadler and Sullivan are protean comic talents, but just as often the show is touching and even tragic. Nadler's rendition of “When I Lost You” immediately following the story of the death of Berlin's first wife (of typhus, on their honeymoon in Cuba) is sure to bring a lump to the throat, for example, as is his performance of “Say It Isn't So” - illustrating the composer's bafflement as the failure of his 1962 show Mr. President. In those moments when he's actually playing Berlin, in fact, Nadler captures the man's voice and manner so well that he even looks a bit like him - as though the late composer had decided to drop in a tell a bit of the story himself. Nadler is also an impressive pianist who gets to dazzle the audience early on with a thunderous reading of Berlin's “International Rag”.
KT Sullivan is, to some extent, the ice to Nadler's fire - cool, collected, and vocally assured, she provides a wonderful counterpoint (both musically and theatrically) to her partner. That's not to say that she doesn't get her chance to make you laugh, of course. A case in point is her version of “You'd Be Surprised”, which makes the most of Berlin's double entendre lyrics without stepping over the line into vulgarity. She's clearly the stronger singer of the two but never overpowers Nadler, and their voices blend beautifully in their many duets.
This is, in short, no dearth of brilliant musical and theatrical moments in the course of this two-hour show. I was particularly struck by the medley of Berlin's World War II songs. The set includes comic classics such as “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” (one of the few songs that Berlin actually recorded himself) and “This is the Army” along with the wistful “Home Again” and - most impressively - a rendition of “God Bless America” that managed to retain the song's inspirational power without burdening it with the jingoistic baggage that has lately become its lot. Even if this were the only coup de theatre in the evening (and, rest assured, it isn't) it alone would justify a trip to the Sheldon.KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler will be unwrapping their dazzling pre-Christmas present at the Sheldon, 3648 Washington, just west of the Fox, through Sunday [December 5, 2004]. It's a fitting finale to another stellar season. Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information or surf on over to the Grand Center Cabaret web site at www.grandcenter.org/cabaret.