Irving Berlin playing 'God Bless America'

Tributes to Kern & Berlin

19-27 July 2019 /
Aubyn Live Theatre, Hastings /
By Anna Soutar

The effort and pleasures in writing about cultural occasions in Hawke’s Bay mean that for the reviewer the sheer range of performance yields a rich reward for the Bay is blessed with talent in all its guises.

Down the road from me in Hastings is the Aubyn Live Theatre where a stage full of musical theatre enthusiasts have spent the winter with director Staveley Tankersley working on tributes to the two great geniuses of American musical theatre, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.  They have been at it for many weeks; for amateur groups it is often rehearsal time which gives them the most satisfaction, almost more enjoyable than the performance. These people are having fun. They take pride in accomplishing dance moves, and clever, tricky lyrics. It shows in their performance and they transmit this sense of enjoyment to the audience. No matter what their size and shape, every one of these enthusiasts gives it a whacking great shot.

They are singing and dancing from the songbook of musical theatre material that straddles two World Wars, the Great Depression, Victorian fashion into art deco and be-bop. A songbook that reflects contemporary American history as it spread through the world to become a global cultural reality. Jerome Kern’s 1927 standard Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man or Alexander’s Ragtime Band from Irving Berlin in 1911 both reflect the black bands as they morph into the swing and jazz in popular music of the 20th century.

Weaving the whole into one, taking a dozen or so numbers for each of the composers, misses being fragmented by using local musical stalwart Eileen von Dadelszen as an interlocater, reading from a thick book of the lives and times of each of the two. This integration of songs with narration is a veritable classroom of instruction, with the additional gem provided when von Dadelszen with her evergreen soprano, sings, sometimes a fragment of a melody, sometimes with a partner, a full number. One such was Make Believe from Showboat, when she was partnered with Peter Berry.

The solos are shared among the large cast, and routines were interspersed with full cast appearances, so there was a ready provision of variety and energy throughout. Young Alex Dubery deserves a shout out for the animation he injects into every moment he is given – his tribute to the soldiers’ wartime reveille Oh How I Hate to get up in the Morning is a delight.

The live musicians responded to these much-loved standards with a dab hand on bass and drums and piano. I sensed a firm experienced hand at the controls: Myra Reid, Leon Speakman and Maurice Bartlett, take a bow.  Why are these the songs which stay in the memory and are termed ‘standards’? The audience on the night I went, was from all age groups so the answer is not just that we oldies are the only ones who remember the lyrics (though I did for the most part !). There is an element of simple, homely ideas which grew out of the recurring story of rags to riches common to both these composers from a time before and during the two wars when America itself was honouring the uncomplicated self-made .

It is very hard to single out individuals, but Stella Gilmour made a particular impact on me: when I saw her arrive on stage I felt that I could relax, the notes will be right, the gestures and the words will fit the song,  and Viola Du Toit, who knew how to use the stage was also a delight, and Janita Dubery of the beautiful voice, there were too many to mention.

Among the men, Peter Berry exuded calm maturity, but I fancy I heard a confident baritone coming from Gray Rufell in Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight. We would have liked to see more men up on stage.

In the true tradition of American musical theatre there is plenty of glitter, cleverly lit and simply hung; just two big closeups of Kern and Berlin. More glitter and sparkle in the costumes with a fine dose of art deco to honour the years when these two music makers made their greatest impact, between and just after the two wars. As expected, the men are in spotless whites, the full dress suits sharply tailored, the women in tasselled art deco gowns, all shine and schtick, heads garnished with fascinators and alice bands.

What can we offer for the big finish? Something you will want to leave here singing heartily: the beloved anthem for the stage performer written by Irving Berlin in 1946: “There’s no business like Show Business, like no business I know…”

Support The Hook

We'll use supporter funds to thank our writers and become more financially sustainable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *