The Melody Lingers On
A musical review based on the life of Irving Berlin

adpted by Tom Briggs from the memoirs of Mary Ellin Barret

Directed by Sara Randall

March 9th - 13th, 2004

The Tower Theatre performing at the Questors Studio, Ealing

 

Cast List

Company
Nadine Allexant
Michael Allaway
Bob Bradick
Bridget Cross
Nick Frank
Helen Jeckells
Helen Kirrane
Paris Panther
Chris de Pury
Catherine Raingold
Lee Waddingham
Karen Walker
Gail Willis

Musicians
Nick Williamson (MD, Piano)
Will Collier (Double Bass)
Arthur Garrison (Percussion)
Dave Runkle (Trumpet)
Mike Lesirge (Reeds)
Matt Robson (Trumpet)

 

Production Team

Director : Sara Randall
Musical Director : Nick Williamson
Choreographer : Helen Jeckells
Lighting Design : Adrian Jeckells
Sound Design : Stephen Ley
Settings : Keith Syrett, Jeff Kelly

Technical Co-Ordinator : Phillip Ley
Production Manager : Sarah Ambrose
Stage Manager : Margaret Ley
ASMs : Dorothy Wright, Moira McSperrin, Phyllis Spencer
Lighting Operators : Laurence Tuerk, Nathalie Lake
Sound Operator : Phillip Ley
Costumes : Karen Killaspy, Kay Perversi, Jill Batty
Set Construction and Rigging : Keith Syrett, Peter Westbury, Rob Myer



Review by Richard Dunn


There's no big secret to becoming a multi-millionaire. All you have to do is write White Christmas. Unfortunately, it's one of life's little unfairnesses that the man who wrote the most popular Christmas song also cornered the market in Easter songs (since Easter Bonnet, has anyone else even tried?). He was also responsible for literally hundreds more standards - from Alexander's Ragtime Band to What'll I Do?
The Melody Lingers On started with the huge advantage of being able to take its pick from the Irving Berlin songbook - one of the great treasures of American popular music. How can a musical show fail when the songs are by the author of Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam?


The writers, Tom Briggs and Karen Baker, realised this, and, drawing on the memoirs of Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barret, kept the spoken elements of this "musical revue" to a minimum. We got only the basic facts of the life of the composer who was born Israel Bahline in Russia in 1888. When you are compressing 101 years of life into a couple of hours stage time, you have no choice but to be skeletal, I guess, but I would have liked more humour and more insight, particularly into Berlin's second marriage - to a well-to-do Roman Catholic society girl fifteen years his junior. A middle-aged showbiz Jew marrying an RC society princess in the 1920s! There's a show in that story alone!
I could also have done with a less sanitised version of someone who was clearly a complex man. This was, after all, the composer who sued Mad magazine for writing a parody of A Pretty Girl is like a Melody, yet gave away the copyright for God Bless America to the Boy Scouts of America.

Enough quibbles already! This was a hugely enjoyable evening, where the energy of the cast and the precision of the direction and musical accompaniment were more than a match for the wonderfully entertaining songs. Oh, all right, one more tiny carp - not all of the singing was in tune, and a couple of the singers were strangely inaudible when speaking their lines. As for the rest - terrific!
The show took the form of a cabaret, with a cocktail bar, tables and black bentwood chairs against a silver tinsel backdrop and with tablecloths and costumes to match (set designers Keith Syrett and Jeff Kelly, costumes by Karen Killaspy, Kay Perversi and Jill Batty). I saw the show both in the Questors Studio and in the Questors Studio, where the cabaret effect was enhanced by having real tables in the theatre itself - and real drinks! The glitter of the evening was helped by a splendid lighting plan that rang the changes at frequent intervals. We had gobo projections of musical notes on the floor, a glitter ball to give a snow effect, and in one of the best numbers, blue and red floor-level lighting to add real drama to Puttin' on the Ritz. (Lighting designers Laurence Tuerk and Adrian Jeckells).

The style of the numbers was nicely varied too, from the intimate, like You Forgot to Remember to big dance numbers like Heat Wave. There was even a touch of barbershop in I'm Happy.
Helen Jeckells' choreography throughout was inventive and clever, and considering that some of the performers were selected for the sweetness of their singing rather than their terpsichorean talents, this was no mean achievement. I particularly admired the wonderful set of variations she dreamed up in I love a Piano where most of the dancing was done sitting down. Helen is a wonderfully confident performer too, with eyes constantly sparkling and a smile always on her lips, but she also provided one of the most affecting moments in the show when she sang All Alone. Her tiny plaintive voice, heavily amplified but true, brought real poignancy to an Irving Berlin song I had strangely never heard before.

The majority of the singers were good, and stalwarts like Bob Bradick, Karen Walker, Michael Alloway and Nadine Allexant did sterling work, but special mention must go to three individuals. Nick Frank completely looked the part of a 30s screen idol in tuxedo or top hat; and his rich deep voice drove away memories of even Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby when he sang Let's Face the Music and Dance and White Christmas. Lee Waddingham looked more 21st century, but again sang beautifully throughout, in his solos like Cheek-to-Cheek, or when he was duetting with the ever-reliable Chris de Pury on Play a Simple Melody or simply when he was part of the chorus. The star female performer for me was Bridget Cross who, among a string of elegantly-sung numbers, breathed new life into Moonshine Lullaby, one of the less well-remembered songs of Annie Get Your Gun.
A word, too, for good old Colin Dent. He was missing from the Questors performances because of a leg injury that had already affected him at the Questors Studio. But as he and the equally energetic Gail Willis swung into We're a Couple of Swells, you'd never have known he was in pain. What a trouper!

The keynote of the evening was energy and precision, in the choreography, in the singing (for the most part) and in the musical accompaniment under MD Nick Williamson - all springing, of course from Sara Randall's typically tight direction. One of the real highlights was the finale at the end of Act 1, when Shaking the Blues Away began as a jaunty dance tune, then darkened as we learned about Berlin's blackest period, when the death of a child in Christmas 1928 was followed less than a year later by the loss of his fortune in the Wall Street Crash. The playing, singing, acting and lighting came together to produce a powerful ensemble moment almost as striking as the Tomorrow Belongs to Me number in Cabaret. Memorable stuff!