I Love a Piano at Mesa's Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre: How Bad Can an Irving Berlin Revue Be?

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Barry Manilow, for the love of God, please make sure that you've placed a wise, discerning person in charge of approving shows based on your songwriting catalogue in the event of your death. Of course this is an event I hope happens far, far in the future. (I am, by the way, available for that job.)

Yes, I know there is a Barry Manilow revue already, but that does not stop these vultures from creating additional travesties like I Love a Piano, centered around the works of Irving Berlin, currently exerting itself all over the main stage of Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Mesa.

Co-creator/playwrights Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley are well-meaning fellows who love music and the theater and have resumes stuffed with successful professional work experience. They just don't translate to a decent evening of entertainment. Irving Berlin's songs, all by themselves, sung with competent styling, guarantee a top-notch evening of entertainment. But tasteless over-accessorizing can drown out what's good and true.

That's the main problem with Piano, and that's my advice to Mr. Manilow and/or his representative, and to all good songwriters (although bad ones will listen to me sooner).

The main "character" of the script is a 100-year-old upright, played in this case by a genuine antique instrument on loan from Linton-Milano Music. That's the best idea Berkeley and Roderick had; the characters played by human beings begin the downhill slide. They don coveralls to shove the leading lady onstage when she's new and continue by miraculously remaining acquainted with one another in contrived situation after contrived situation. Ultimately, they all audition for leads in Annie, Get Your Gun in the 1950s.

Other pitfalls include outfitting each female performer with a wig and then not bothering to appropriately change their hairstyles along with their costumes as the years go by (Oh, to be a man and allowed to wear one's own hair in a play!). Then there's the wild variation of quality in John P. White's costumes, from the WWII military sequence in the photo above that looks pretty sharp throughout to the shoddy, ill-fitting, and inexplicably matching frocks the poor ladies have to wear during a montage set in what appears to be a radio studio. (Of all the incarnations of Stage Door Canteen, that was the only one that seemed to fit.)

All these staging and conceptual clinkers might have receded if each musical number had been a breathtaking tribute to one of the finest writers of the most enduring popular showtunes we'll ever know. Most of the song settings, though, were just some combo of the talented six-member cast singing pretty straight. I'd like to feel a thrill of surprise or excitement more than two or three times in the course of an evening without having to go home (thank you, Mr. Curtains).

It was great to hear a few numbers that almost never see the light of day any more: "Suppertime," "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil," "Say It Isn't So." And the World War II montage actually was a tribute, both to a record-breaking streak of creativity and patriotic service from Berlin and to a high point in American music in general.

The greater part of the production, though, felt restrained on the musical side, which is where it could really shine -- at least a little. Musical director JR McAlexander is lucky to have at least two amazing vocalists, Elizabeth Loos and Virginia Cavaliere, who were allowed to belt with all their impressive voices, but only about once each in the entire show. Of course, a happy medium is the goal -- I've read criticism of other productions where too much belting went on.

I Love a Piano continues through Sunday, July 3, at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, 5247 East Brown Road in Mesa. Admission includes a full buffet meal. Adult ticket prices are $45 to $49 ($20 to $22 for children 12 and younger), with a limited number of show-only seats available at a reduced price. A Saturday night special, $39 for adult admission with dinner, is available through closing. To check times and dates, order tickets, or for more information, click here or call 480-325-6700.

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