Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Faulkner: "I Love a Piano"

What's not to like? In a play (more like a revue, in fact) that showcases sixty of America's foremost songwriters' tunes [he composed about 1500 of them in a musical career covering over half a century] audiences are invited to sing along to their favorites in Faulkner University's witty and tuneful production of Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano.

With a three-piece pit band that sometimes sounds like a lot more instruments or allows a simple piano accompaniment, director Angela Dickson fluidly guides her multi-talented eight-member ensemble through this catalogue of Berlin's repertoire from 1910 Tin Pan Alley through the late 1950s, dazzling us with multiple costume changes for each period.

The conceit of saving an old piano from the junk heap links the two acts' ten scenes through the Twentieth Century via Berlin's iconic music.

Matt Dickson's black-and-white Art Deco set is complimented by simple tracking set pieces and a large upstage screen with period looking black and white projections including a grainy video featuring Blake Williams as a Simon Legree villain. -- Though the lighting often leaves the actors' faces in shadow, the result is mostly bright and cheerful, with occasional detours to more serious matters.

But the play, devised by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkley is, after all, about the music, and Ms. Dickson never loses track of it as the songs evoke simpler past times at signal moments in American history.

Mr. Berlin could be sentimental and romantic ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "The Best Things Happen When You Dance"), comical ("We're a Couple of Swells" and "Anything You Can Do"), showy ("There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band"), and unabashedly patriotic ("God Bless America") as he celebrated his adopted country over a lifetime that spanned a century.

So many of his songs have become a part of America's shared experience through the many films and Broadway musicals he composed, for example: Top Hat, Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, White Christmas; and some of their most familiar song and dance numbers are replicated here.

And the ensemble -- Jesse Alston, Courtney Curenton, Matt Dickson, Brittney Johnston, Brandtley McDonald, Blake Mitchell, Trey Ousley, Emily Woodring -- come through with charm and finesse, clearly enjoying themselves and delivering Berlin's lyrics with verve and understanding. Each is afforded individual moments to shine, and the ensemble comfort and support for one another is top notch. Solid performances by all.