In Series' bittersweet Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin revue

'Arlen Blues & Berlin Ballads' at the Atlas: a poignant comment on our current hard times. Photo: Paul Aebersold

WASHINGTON, December 9, 2011 – The In Series is wrapping up the first stanza of its 2011-2012 season this weekend with three performances of its latest, tune-filled musical revue, Arlen Blues & Berlin Ballads, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theater. Loaded with mostly popular and occasionally obscure songs by those great American tunesmiths Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, this is a lively and often thought provoking show with a broad appeal even for a younger demographic that might not be familiar with these key mid-20th century composers.

The show’s hit tunes include “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Stormy Weather,” and, of course, “White Christmas.”

Cast of 'Arlen & Berlin.'

Cast of ‘Arlen & Berlin.’ From left: Tammy Roberts, Jase Parker, Leslie Vincent, Lew Freeman, Pam Ward. (Photo credits: Paul Aebersold.)

As is generally the case with In Series’ musical productions, Arlen & Berlin is cast as a frame tale that’s actually set in Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, DC. It’s an ingenious choice by scriptwriter Bari Bern who creates a genuinely brilliant link between the show’s musical selections—mostly dating from the 1930s—and our own ongoing Great Depression sequel in 2011.

Staged in a minimalist set designed by AJ Guban and Donna Breslin that strongly resembles Freedom Plaza’s spare, distinctively modernist stonework, we meet five very different anonymous characters from various walks of life, all of whom are more or less adversely affected by the current economy. Of the three female characters, two (Tammy Roberts and Leslie Vincent) have recently joined the unemployment rolls, while the third (Pam Ward) considers herself pretty lucky to still have a job.

As for the male characters, one is a gay humanities major (Jase Parker) who’s beginning to think that staying in school forever might be his best career choice; while the other (Lew Freeman) is an older guy who’s already retired and feeling grateful and lucky at the same time.

Making things even more contemporary is the continuing allusion in the show to the current, seemingly perpetual “Occupy DC” demonstrations. From time to time, one of the characters will pull a gently used protest poster out of a conveniently placed trash can, comment on the slogan, and launch into an appropriate song.

Jase Parker.

Jase Parker celebrates the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Maybe his humanities major character has a career path after all.

The effect of the whole setting, is to transform Arlen’s and Berlin’s music and lyrics into something that seems to have been written just yesterday and just for us. It’s a simple idea, but we can’t recall that anyone has thought of it before. Director Abel Lopez and choreographer Angelisa Gillyard direct the proceedings with an appropriately light touch, making the setting and the characters seem just like the people next door. It’s highly effective and deceptively low key.

In general, the singers seemed not quite as strong as in other In Series productions. Yet oddly, this made things seem even more real, more immediate, again adding to the sense that the people on stage were somehow the people that all of us know.

The outstanding chanteuse of the evening was Pam Ward, whose warm, jazz-infused song styling was perfect for setting the mood, particularly in her pensive, bluesy rendition of that Harold Arlen classic, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Jase Parker’s singing and clever antics provided balance by livening up the proceedings. All of the singers—who sang blessedly un-amplified—projected well, and their vocals were distinctive in both diction and articulation. This is always key to delivering the songs of composers like Arlen and Berlin who wrote their music back in the day when clever, thoughtful, and rhyming lyrics were at least as important as the tunes themselves.

Pam Ward, Marshall Keys.

Pam Ward’s jazz styling is the highlight of the show. Marshall Keys wails on his sax in the background.

Pianist and musical director Stanley Thurston—increasingly a welcome presence in the In Series’ contemporary music productions, leads a tiny ensemble that provides a smooth, jazzy backdrop for this show. He’s aided and abetted by another In Series favorite, the marvelous saxophonist, Marshall Keys who wanders in and out of the action adding his haunting musical comments to our contemporary political and economic dilemmas.

Poignant, patriotic, and oddly compelling in a low-key way, the In Series’ Arlen & Berlin is a thoughtful way to end a very strange year, one that’s leaving a lot more questions than answers.

But that’s the charm of this show. Life often boils down to a matter of attitude. Arlen and Berlin, who endured and survived America’s earlier hard-times decade, composed a boatload of songs that speak to us once again. Perhaps songs like these can help current generations navigate our current colossal mess and lead us through to the other side.

Arlen & Berlin wraps up this weekend at the Atlas. General Admission tickets range from $37 down to $34 dollars for seniors. Student tickets are $20. For tickets and information, visit the In Series website.

Rating: *** (Three stars.)


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of theWashington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communitiescolumn,The Prudent Man in Politics.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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