About a third of the way through the second act of Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano at Arena Stage, I made peace with sitting through the show by making a conscious decision to enjoy the evening as a concert of well-staged dance/movement sequences by conceiver, choreographer, director Ray Roderick performed by a talented, appealing ensemble. After all, for whatever reason, Washington DC audiences really don’t get to see a lot of good home-grown theater dance, despite having an active dance scene. And as a dance concert, there was much to enjoy, particularly a clever staging of people watching a movie in a row of six chairs, and an attempt at some Ginger/Fred-esque work.
Making this decision helped me stop stewing about a lot of other issues like:
- The fact that I had no idea what this show was trying to accomplish. Other than a vague chronology there didn’t seem to be any real structure to the progression of material. And the songs were generally presented in such a truncated and amalgamated fashion that it would be impossible for most people to know where one finished and another began. There were very few songs simply sung whole (and forget introductions). And for people who were well acquainted with the Berlin songbook, with the exception of a trio of songs about post-war life for soldiers, there were no “discoveries.” And moreover, it was annoying to have the sequences identified in the program as “The Speakeasy (Part II)” rather than listing songs in sequences.
- Being annoyed that the appealing, obviously-talented performers were deployed as little more than straightjacketed automatons. Annoying, too, the performers were individually unidentifyable given that the program listed almost all the sequences mentioned above as “Company” and there were no pictures next to the audience bios in the program.
- The fact that while generally fine, the music direction in the show took occasionally mysitfying jags. For example, a close harmony version of Lazy had the singers hitting amazing chords that were unrecognizable as the melody of the song.
- The missed opportunity that neither The Washington Square Dance or The Washington Twist, two of the few songs with a Washington theme were presented in the show.
- And how is it that the same producing organization that gave us the aggressively fascinating Next to normal in the same season foists this piece on an otherwise unsuspecting public?
On the bright side, Arena does not hesitate to mike an effort like this, so the patrons are actually able to hear the show. And it’s nice to see that Arena’s $25 sale obviously had an effect in getting some backsides into seats.