Songs in the Key of Berlin


When the director and cast of the musical revue, I Love a Piano, decided to do some research on Irving Berlin, the subject of the play, they didn’t have to go too far — six blocks, to be precise.

That’s the distance from the Walnut Street Theatre, where I Love a Piano is being staged, to the National Museum of American Jewish History, where, in addition to learning about Berlin’s background and the times he grew up in, they could also commune with the piano he is reputed to have used to compose “God Bless America.”

The three thespians — director/actor Ellie Mooney and actors Denise Whelan and Owen Pelesh (the fourth member of the ensemble, Scott Langdon, was unable to participate) — were taken on a guided tour of the museum. They focused on sections relating to the first half of the 20th-century Jewish experience, one that the former Israel Isidore Baline himself would have been intimately acquainted with — emigrating from Eastern Europe, oftentimes pursued by attackers like Cossacks, as his family was; finding cramped living quarters like cold-water tenement buildings on the Lower East Side, where multiple generations of his family would bunk in just a few rooms; and dealing with limited job options, like piecemeal sewing and butchery, the latter which Berlin’s father did  when he couldn’t find work as a cantor, his profession in Russia.

For Mooney, the tour brought a deeper resonance to her understanding of the man responsible for so many of the most memorable pages in the Great American Songbook, classics like “Top Hat,” “What’ll I Do?” “Always” and hundreds more compositions.

“I have a shared experience,” she marveled during a post-museum conversation. “My grandfather was a butcher in Fairmount, and I grew up with a very Sicilian grandmother, and she had those same things we saw” in the museum, “including the sewing machine in the living room!”

There was also a sense of déjà vu for the performers during the tour: Upon entering the part of the museum dedicated to the immigration explosion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were stopped short by the haphazard pile of belongings that almost perfectly mirrors the set of their own play, which stitches together 64 Ber­lin classics through a series of vignettes. Each scene  features medleys of songs that help represent different periods of the American Century, from 1900 to 1950, Tin Pan Alley to the Great Depression to World War II and the postwar era.

Each of the actors plays multiple roles while interpreting the songs that are so well known by the audience, even if not everyone knows they were by Berlin. “He is an icon, and even if you’re not involved in the theater, you know his songs like ‘God Bless America’ and ‘White Christmas’ through everyday life,” Whelan explained. “Even the songs you may not know are his, you’re familiar with those, too: ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz,’ ‘Blue Skies’ ” — to name a few.

The well-crafted, fast-paced show, which has been filling the Walnut Street Theatre’s 85-seat Independence Studio on 3 since it opened, can sometimes turn into a sing-along, or at least a mouth-along, judging by how familiar the audience seemed with most of the numbers during a recent performance. Mooney says this is a point of pride for many in the crowd. “Our audiences tend to take it as a challenge,” she said with a laugh. “They tell us, ‘I knew all but six’ of the songs, or ‘I knew all but three!’ ”

In fact, Mooney wishes there would be more audience participation. “It’s hard, because the audience really doesn’t want to make noise — they don’t want to disturb us since we are almost in their laps,” she said of performing in the intimate space. “There are times when they’re not making a sound, their chins are up, and they’re leaning to see behind each other’s heads — the silence is stunning. Sometimes we just want to say, ‘It’s OK, guys, you can make noise, you won’t throw us off, we are good at our jobs!”

Judging by the happy chattering and recapping spilling out onto a warm Walnut Street, she’s not the only one who feels that way.


I Love a Piano
Now through June 28
Walnut Street Theatre
Independence Studio on 3
825 Walnut St., Philadelphia


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