BWW Reviews: IRVING BERLIN: FROM RAGS TO RITZES, Royal Festival Hall, January 28 2014
As one of the most prolific composers and lyricists of the 20th century and one of the most important figures building the Great American Songbook, Irving Berlin has plenty of fans. And they were out in force at the Royal Festival Hall for a new retrospective marking what would have been Berlin's 125th year.
Host Leo Green, whose dad Benny famously interviewed Berlin on the BBC, was Master of Ceremonies for this celebration of the great man's work. Keen to get the audience involved from the start, he was charming and enthusiastic and eventually won the crowd over. Green also played interviewer, with an enjoyable chat with two of Berlin's granddaughters delivering some real colour to the evening.
Pete Long and his 40-piece orchestra provided the accompaniment as Sophie Evans, Mary Carewe, Matthew Ford, Ricardo Afonso and Tom Langham sing their way through Berlin's greatest hits. The songs are ordered into some kind of loose structure, and some of the groupings make more sense than others - but all the hits are there.
Particular highlights included Evans singing What'll I Do and a specially arrangEd Strolling Up The Avenue Medley bringing together those great dance numbers Puttin' on the Ritz, Top Hatm White Tie and Tails and Slumming on Park Avenue. The whole breadth and depth of Berlin's back catalogue was on display, really demonstrating the full genius of the young refugee who could neither read nor write music.
Evans and Carewe really impress, and get a chance to shine together performing a medley of tracks under the heading 'Sisters'. Afonso aside, the male performances are less memorable on the whole. They seemed to lack the oomph needed to really do the pieces justice.
Irving Berlin: FROM RAGS TO RITZES is definitely a show for the fans but this shouldn't be held against it. It had the feeling of pouring a glass of wine, slipping into a warm bath whilst your favourite songs play on the radio. With the final reprises of Alexander's Ragtime Band and No Business Like Showbusiness, you'll find it hard not to stand up in the aisles and join in.