The Siegels' Nightlife Notes Sep 22, 2003
THEATREMANIANew York Nightlife Gets Livelier
ALWAYS- The Love Story Of Irving Berlin is a brilliantly conceived Off-Broadway revue joyfully masquerading as an elaborate, two-hour cabaret show with an intermission. This may well follow in the footsteps of the Gershwin show that KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler originally launched in cabaret and that eventually became a long running Off-Broadway hit. The Gershwin show was quite good, yet the Berlin show far surpasses it in its sophisticated construction. More than that, Sullivan and Nadler have one of the great American love stories to tell in the saga of Irving and Ellin Berlin.
Most musical revues dedicated to the work of one composer or lyricist tell their stories only in relation to the music performed. For instance, if there is an anecdote about the writing of a tune, then that's the only patter you'll hear when that song is performed. Sullivan and Nadler do the opposite: They put Irving Berlin's music in service to the story, weaving the composer's songs in and out of the narrative according to their emotional content. For instance, when they perform "No Strings," they don't put it in the context of Berlin's career or even mention Fred Astaire, who introduced so many of Berlin's songs. Instead, we hear the number as the composer's refusal to get involved with another woman after the tragic early death of his first wife.
We tend to look at Irving Berlin as America's songwriter, his music somehow always right on the pulse of the people. That's the view when you look at his music with a telescope; it's the big picture. Look through the other end of that telescope and you see not a country, but a man and his pains and passions. In this way, Sullivan and Nadler give us the intimate story of a musical colossus.
The show starts with a bit of turnabout as Sullivan plays the piano and Nadler stands at the microphone; the bit is just a tad arch, more about the performers than Berlin, but the act quickly gets into gear and never falters thereafter. It features a zesty smorgasbord of Berlin tunes -- many well known, many rarely heard. Some are performed in their totality; others are woven into evocative medleys that punctuate dramatic arcs in Berlin's life. Nadler's arrangements of these medleys are elegant, imaginative, and seamless.
Sullivan is a delightful musical comedian; she puts over songs like "You'd be Surprised" and "I'm a Dumbell" with a deliciously sly sense of humor, and she can just as easily make you cry as laugh. "Be Careful It's My Heart" is just one of the poignant ballads she delivers with emotional punch. Nadler is exceptional as the primary narrator of the Berlin story, his delivery crisp and his style compelling. A showman in the Jolson style, Nadler brings a sense of urgency to every song he performs. You can't take your eyes off him.The combination of this exciting new show playing at a brand new club is cabaret nirvana. Both are so clearly successful that, mere hours after the opening, it was announced that ALWAYS will linger on at Mama Rose's: A return engagement is already set for December 1, 2, 3, 9, and 10.