It's almost cheating to take the stage armed with the repertoire of the man commonly accepted as the greatest American songwriter of the 20th century. What wasn't cheating was the energetic performance Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan brought to the Gisela & Dennis Alter Mainstage of Philadelphia's excellent Prince Music Theater for Wednesday's opening staging of "Always: The Love Story of Irving Berlin."
Even if you're too young to have lived when these songs were created and first brought to the world, you can't go wrong with this show. Most times, the performers provide background information on the influence behind the songs before they are sung. Even if you've heard these songs many, many times, you still may come to appreciate them on a whole new level.
Nadler, a veteran of every major caberet in New York City from the Algonquin to Sardi's, is the anchor of the show. He spends nearly all of the performance at the piano and delivers faithful song renditions as well as comical imitations of Berlin's nasal speaking voice. It's Sullivan though who brings the party. She'll captivate you with her catty behavior, make you laugh with her dumb blond act, then shock you with her vocal range. Playing the women Berlin fell in love with, Sullivan's graciousness turned to flirtation mixed with humor, makes Berlin's love for these women understandable.
It was said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music - he is American music." Not bad for a poor immigrant who had only two years of formal schooling and who never learned to read or write music but still earned millions from his songwriting. Because Berlin brought great joy through his music, one would think that his personal life was of a similar vein. It also would seem that the show's title implies that the love in his life was always happy. Not so. We're told in the dialogue between numbers that his first wife died just two months after their marriage.
Determined to live the life of a confirmed bachelor, it was well over a decade before he met the second woman he was to marry. Not so fast though. The girl he fell for was the daughter, Ellin Mackay, of a wealthy Irish Catholic man who forbade her to marry Berlin.
A tumultuous relationship ensued with the daughter torn between her respect for her father and her love of Berlin. Not only did Berlin win the hand of the young lassie, but the stock market crash of 1929 humbled the girl's father financially and eventually he and Berlin became good friends. Tragedy soon struck when the first-born child of the newlyweds died in its infancy.
"Always: The Love Story Of Irving Berlin" is limited to 10 performances with the final show on Oct. 29. The show includes more than 40 Berlin hit songs, plus six unpublished songs and one that has never been performed before. It's a wonderfully emotional evening of great music and revelations into the force behind some of the greatest music ever created.