NealsPaper

All Things Entertaining and Cultural

I Love a Piano — Walnut Independence Theatre on 3

untitled (81)In my sophomore year of high school, when all classes were mixed in one giant gym class, I was brought out to the blacktop with juniors, seniors, and my 10th grade peers to run a quarter mile.

I just took off. Before I knew it, I was sprinting with reckless abandon and was way ahead of the pack. This was a particular surprise because I was never what anyone would call a track star. It was about my sophomore year I discovered I had any athletic prowess at all.

So there I was, shocked to be anywhere beyond the middle of the runners and thrilled not to be the wildebeest hanging at the back for the lion to pounce on, running as if I was being chased by a ball of fire or some Indiana Jones obstacle.

As I approach the one eighth mark, literally flying, I felt two hands, one on each shoulder, holding me back and stopping my forward progress. When my feet finally quit moving, and I looked up, I saw Art McNally, yes the Art McNally who was a head referee for the NFL, arresting my motion.

“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” Mr. McNally asked. “You are running like the wind, but you are going to collapse if I let you go like that for another eighth of a mile. Didn’t anyone teach you about pacing? You have to measure your speed to preserve your energy. Now I want you to walk the remaining eighth mile and then come see me about learning how to run in a productive way.”

I tell this story because it came to mind while I was watching Ellie Mooney’s overridingly entertaining production of “I Love a Piano” at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.

The opening sequence of a man dressed as a Walnut stagehand noodling at an ancient piano in lieu of following his workmates to Coco’s was a nice touch, and Owen Pelesh seems to genuinely commune with the vintage spinet when he began plunking out Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” note by note.

The bit neatly set up the story of a piano as a link to Berlin’s 75 years of prolific songwriting.

All of a sudden, Pelesh, shedding his stagehand hoodie and Walnut baseball cap, for Edwardian finery, starts playing ragtime, with music director David Jenkins taking over the heavy lifting on a backstage baby grand.

Energy breaks loose and Pelesh, Mooney, and Scott Langdon go through a medley of mid-tempo songs praising music, femininity, and romance with total show biz pizazz. Costumes come and go like magic, props appear for one comic moment before fading into oblivions, musical instruments from triangles and kazoos to guitars materialize, and the tiny Independence stage is teeming with vibrant music, comic antics, a Fanny Brice-like repertory of expressions, and razzmatazz that makes you think Mooney’s “I Love a Piano” is going to be an express ride to a passel of tunes and a walloping occasion of entertainment.

On some levels, that impression holds. Irving Berlin’s oeuvre is so versatile and captures so many moods, attitudes, and situation, it is its own reward, individually, Pelesh, Langdon, Mooney, and Denise Whelan are powerhouse talents who can bring texture to a Berlin ballad and vaudeville flash to novelty numbers and up tunes.

The first 20 of “I Love a Piano’s” 90 or so minutes are terrific. Pelesh and Mooney even show they can hoof as well as they can sing, and Mooney, as director and choreographer, takes advantage of that.

Creativity is rife and fertile. The problem is there’s too much of it. At times, you want Mooney’s “I Love a Piano” to settle down and just let Berlin’s music do the work. This feeling is reinforced when Denise Whelan takes center stage to croon “A Russian Lullaby,” ask plaintively for an inamorato to “Say It Isn’t So,” or mourn a late soldier in “Suppertime.”

At times you need relief from hyperactivity. At times less is more. At times you have to pace yourself and know how to run that first eighth of a mile so someone in charge doesn’t fear for your life and ask you to walk the final eighth.

Ellie Mooney shows she is a director who brims with great ideas. She cannot be faulted for her inventiveness or the care she takes to make sure her gambits work.

There’s little wrong with Mooney’s timing.

Pacing is another issue. “I Love a Piano” doesn’t keep up its stamina. As one sequences fades into another, energy flags. What started so exuberantly begins to look forced. It isn’t that Mooney’s cast can’t keep up with the double time. It’s that the production begins to show fatigue. Too much is going on at once. Your eye is in fine frenzy rolling, and you’re not sure whether to focus on ribbons floating through the air, things coming out of trunks, the interjection of a kazoo, a moue traded between characters, a gymnastic lunge, or on Berlin’s eclectic tunes.

“I Love a Piano” entertains but it does so exhaustingly. All the business wears you out. You mentally plea for a slowdown, for a number to be totally presentational and done with no commentary or nod to a chronological period.

The exhaustion doesn’t travel one way. Brisk and imaginative as it is, Mooney’s production begins to lose palpable steam. As the show proceeds, numbers don’t seem as crisp or as clockwork. You lose some measure of patience with the production. With its many fine elements, including the witty selection of costumes by Julia Poiesz, “I Love a Piano” becomes tiresome. In the first half hour, you cheer for “more, more.” By the time the second act begins, you’re grateful it’s mercifully short.

NealBoxMooney did a generally good job. She — look who’s talking — needs to edit better. She needs to conserve bits she wants to employ for other productions. The kitchen sink and the dishes from last night’s dinner are visible among the panoply of props, movements, and motions Mooney plotted for her cast to do. Just as Whelan relaxes the setting and provides welcome breathing room with her excellent solos, Pelesh and Mooney sometimes lower the heat with a simple soft shoe or box step. Nothing is egregiously wrong with “I Love a Piano.” Mooney just needs to give it some air, the space to establish mood and intensity. It should be a parade, not a marathon. Later scenes would benefit from some calmer going in the early segments. The whole would benefit for a steadier, more easygoing flow of its parts.

“I Love a Piano,” conceived with a book by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, is a valentine to Irving Berlin music through the ages. Groups of songs are assigned to given decade range from the 1910s, when Berlin was peddling his sheet music in retail stores, to the 1950s, when “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Call Me Madam” established him as a musical theater composer.

Roderick and Berkeley use songs as they think they will fit a period or work within a medley. Tunes are do not necessarily appear in the decade or the context in which they were written.

That’s OK. “I Love a Piano” is not meant as a history. It has stories to tell, one for each decade as World Wars come and go, the Depression affects hundreds of millions, and peace leads to a different America following World War II.

The conceivers chock their show with 50 or more Berlin compositions, from the most popular such as “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” to the gorgeous romantic waltzes, “What” I Do”?,” “Always,” and “Remember,” to obscure ditties such as ‘Pick Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” “Two Cheers Instead of Three,” and “Snooky Ookums.”

Berlin, when he gets a chance to be noticed amid the commotion, carries the day. It is a pleasure to hear so many fine songs, especially in an age when you want to stab most lyricists or consign them to the devil in Hades.

Mooney’s cast in likeable but not always even. Mooney and Whelan can always make their voices blend, but in quartets, sound of the sound is ragged.

A missed harmony here and there doesn’t damage as Whelan, Langdon, Pelesh, and Mooney are solid entertainers with good, strong voices that do credit to Berlin’s work.

Denise Whelan is the strongest. She aces the solos mentioned earlier, and her tone tends to be the guiding one in ensemble numbers in which she’s included.

Scott Langdon brings a touch of leading man authority and charm to his numbers.

Owen Pelesh is able to keep pace with Mooney’s shenanigans as the youth lead. He often has to prove a quick-change artist in addition to being a lithe song-and-dance man who takes on the most challenging of Mooney’s stage business.

As a singer, Mooney is sensitive to lyrics and in knowing what material rates her pure soprano voice and what works best in her comic buzz.

“I Love a Piano” may run out of steam and need some refreshing in its later sequences, but the odd pacing doesn’t need the show from being enjoyable, especially to folks who long to give up on current Broadway songwriting and hear “Cheek to Cheek,” “You’re Just in Love,” Change Partners,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “I Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” “Count Your Blessings,” “We’re a Couple of Swells,” “Easter Parade,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Clutter seems to be the ticket in this “I Love a Piano.” Roman Tatarowicz’s set accommodates Mooney’s penchant for props and fabric coming out of nowhere by populating the Independence stage with numerous trunks and making the piano a treasure trove of items. Ryan O’Gara’s lighting design catches the tone of historic periods and uses shadows well. Julia Poiesz’s costumes are numerous and always on the mark. I especially liked the Roxy usher costume Pelesh dons in one sequence. Christopher Collucci’s sound design is so seamless, you’re only sure David Jenkins is on hand when the cast steps away first steps away from the piano that lasts through all of the Walnut’s ages.

“I Love a Piano” runs through Sunday, June 28, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $45 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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