A joyous celebration of Berlin's love and art
"How many hit songs can one person write?" a worried Irving Berlin wondered some time during the 1920s. The answer turned out to be about a zillion, and Always: The Love Story of Irving Berlin, at the Prince Music Theater, offers about four dozen of them, all sung in cabaret/concert style by two smooth old pros who often headline at New York's Algonquin.
The main stage at the Prince sports an old-fashioned red velvet curtain framing a grand piano. Mark Nadler, who seems to be able to play the piano effortlessly, tirelessly, rambunctiously, sometimes with one arm around KT Sullivan's waist, has an emotive, good-natured face and voice. Sullivan, who appears in a black cocktail dress, with her blond hair in an old-fashioned updo, has a fine and versatile soprano; her nearly immobile face and body provide perfect contrast to her partner's schmaltzy energy.
Irving Berlin's songs are remarkable for all kinds of melodic and harmonic and emotional reasons, but also because the lyrics never repeat themselves - each verse builds a story or a portrait or a joke with endless inventiveness.
Always provides a biography of sorts of America's beloved songwriter, who died in 1989 at the age of 101. The story - the classic immigrant success story - is narrated in words but illustrated by song, starting with Berlin's impoverished early childhood in Russia, his family's journey to New York, and his early musical success, then to his young wife's death after they had been married only two months, and then to his 11-year bachelorhood as a rich, celebrated songwriter.
Then the love story begins: He, a Jew pushing 40, married the young and Catholic Ellin Mackay, daughter of one of the richest men in the United States; she had been courted by Leopold Stokowski and the Prince of Wales. Her father cut her off, and it was only after vast sums of money were lost in the Crash of '29 and several grandchildren were born that he relented.
Their courtship ("What'll I Do?") and her rebellion against her social position ("I'm looking for a Washington to chop down my family tree," from the song "With a Family Reputation") and their impulsive wedding ("My Defenses Are Down") are followed by 62 years of marriage - as close to "Always" as you can get.
Berlin celebrated the birth of his first daughter with the gorgeous song "Blue Skies." Years later, during World War II, he spent a year and half entertaining troops on battlefields all over the world, writing songs such as "God Bless America" and "White Christmas."
Times changed, music changed, and just when Berlin thought it was over, there was a revival of his Annie Get Your Gun in 1966. As there will be again, at the Prince in December, when Annie Get Your Gun caps off the theater's "American Legacy" series.
Always: The Love Story of Irving Berlin
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, arrangements and dialogue by Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan. Directed by Richard M. Parison Jr. Lighting consultant Troy A. Martin-O'Shia, sound consultant Nick Kourtides. Presented by Prince Music Theater.
Cast: Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan
Playing at: The Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Through Oct. 29. Tickets $40-$55. Information: 215-569-9700 or www.princemusictheater.org.