BWW Review: Winter Park Playhouse's I LOVE A PIANO Isn't Easy to Love (But Its Actors Are)
I love a piano, but I don't love a musical revue.
Almost as a rule, revues try very hard to fashion a story where one won't fit, or else they rely on lyrically tangential sketches that reach to make the evening something other than a concert or a cabaret.
Unfortunately, I LOVE A PIANO doesn't deviate from the norm. The show, first staged in Denver in 2002 and currently in production at Central Florida's Winter Park Playhouse, bills itself as a "conceptual musical."
The concept? A single piano's journey through time, from Tin Pan Alley to the 1950s, always to the tune of Irving Berlin.
But that concept (a "story," as it were) comes and goes throughout the show. Sometimes the piano is front and center. Other times - often - it's forgotten altogether. The ole ivories are a mere MacGuffin, and not a particularly compelling one at that. The show isn't really here to tell us about a piano, or about the characters who buy and sell it. (For the life of me, I couldn't tell you if the actors play the same characters from beginning to end or not.) It's just here to offer some Irving Berlin tunes for two and a half hours.
As it happens, 150 minutes of Irving Berlin isn't a half-bad way to spend a night. Nearly every song is good. Some are quite clever. A few you know by heart ("White Christmas," "God Bless America," "Cheek to Cheek," "Puttin' on the Ritz," etc.). Many more will come as a pleasant surprise, maybe even inspiring your next Spotify playlist.
Each of the 56 songs (not counting reprises) is sung exceptionally well by a cast of just six performers: Lauren Culver, Meredith Pugh, Kari Ringer, Roy Alan, Nick Drivas, and Larry Alexander. Five of them have an impressive performance history, and it shows. Ringer, meanwhile, is relatively new to the professional stage, and that doesn't show.
They're all engaging, charming, and absolutely lovely to listen to. They make the most of the limited material, and they do justice to Berlin, whose work is one of the biggest reasons we call it the "Great" American Songbook.
When the leading ladies join together in three-part harmony, they really shine. And Culver's hilarious comedy of errors in "There's No Business Like Show Business" is easily the highlight of the show, coming at the end of a lot of good singing by all six.
So when I LOVE PIANO plays out like something you'd expect from an amusement park hours and hours outside of Central Florida, it isn't the performers' fault. Nor is it the theater's. (Though at $42 for an evening ticket - pricey by Central Florida's smaller-stage standards, eclipsing even some of the Dr. Phillips Center's seats - the set design stands out as underwhelming.)
The problem here is simply that I LOVE PIANO doesn't aspire to very much, and you can't help but wish writers Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley would just quit the attempt at a play and call it a cabaret.
Then again, you know your own tastes, including whether musical revues rub you the wrong way too. Notably, the sold-out crowd in this very small venue seemed to love it on the night of Saturday, September 22, and I sensed my reaction was somewhat at odds with theirs. Perhaps you'll fare just as well.
To the Winter Park Playhouse's credit, their venue makes for a delightful little evening. You enter their classy lounge to the piano stylings of Musical Director Christopher Leavy, whose musicianship later is as valuable to I LOVE A PIANO as the stars on the stage. Inside the theatre itself, he's joined by Sam Forrest on percussion and Ned Wilkinson on (insert just about any instrument here). Outside, the staff members are friendly, and the antique bar in the lobby is an attraction all its own.
If nothing else, I LOVE A PIANO is edification for those unacquainted with Berlin's catalogue, and a showcase of local talent. It runs through October 14, 2018. To purchase tickets, visit the Winter Park Playhouse website or call (407) 645-0145.
What did you think of I LOVE A PIANO at the Winter Park Playhouse? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: Winter Park Playhouse