It would be impossible, not to mention foolhardy, to choose one contender for the title of America's greatest songwriter. But if such a designation absolutely had to be made, a lot of money would be riding on Irving Berlin.
There is such a startling amount of quality in the quantity of Berlin's songs (more than 1,200), and a remarkable consistency in terms of communicative power. A hearty sampling of that power is on display in "A Concert Salute to Irving Berlin," the fast-paced cabaret show onstage through the weekend at the Everyman Theatre.
An eager cast of four singers tackles more than two-dozen songs, many of them well-known, several rarely encountered. The repertoire touches on just about every aspect of Berlin's creative life, from his early days when he tapped into the ragtime craze ("That International Rag" is a particularly colorful example) to his last Broadway musical, "Mr. President." That 1962 show is represented here by an amusing, little-known item, "The Secret Service," which finds Berlin's humor as strong as ever.
This song also gets one of the most distinctive bits of stage business in the cabaret (directed by Matthew Gardiner). As bright-toned Bayla Whitten sings engagingly of a first family member's plight - "The Secret Service makes me nervous; when I am dating they are waiting to observe us. ... The president's daughter must drink water, no drink of scotch; she might do what she hadn't oughter" - the other cast members don dark glasses and strike all the familiar poses of a security detail.
There are a few other choreographed numbers along the way, but mostly this is a straight-ahead, sing-out revue that keeps the music coming in wave after entertaining wave. No time is wasted with dialogue, biographical info or context-setting.
Pianist and musical director Howard Breitbart takes an emphatic, mostly jazzy approach in his arrangements, a style that doesn't always mesh with the more straightforward delivery of his singers. Although the propulsion lets up for some of Berlin's finest ballads, Breitbart has a tendency to over-enthuse at the keyboard even then. "Always," delivered sweetly by Whitten, and "How Deep is the Ocean," sung with admirable sensitivity by Sherri Edelen, could both do with a little less expressive punch in the accompaniment.
When the virtuosic Breitbart does rein things in fully, the payoff is considerable. A prime example is "What'll I Do?" Here, the pianist's gently shaded playing is a lovely match for the soloist, James Gardiner, who offers an unaffected, winning style. Gardiner also gets to shine in "For the Very First Time," a Berlin gem that deserves more attention. I wish the singer and pianist would relax a little in "Cheek to Cheek" - it sounds pushy and breathless here, not as classy as it can.
Edelen reveals an experienced way with sculpting a phrase and a knack for deftly articulating a lyric throughout the show. She turns in one of the highlights, a vibrant account of the deliciously suggestive "You'd Be Surprised." She also makes a winning case for "Fools Fall in Love," a Berlin ballad that inexplicably never became a big hit. Edelen and Gardiner team up for a cutely staged romp through "You're Just in Love," the counterpoint duet from "Call Me Madam."
Rounding out the cast is Matt Pearson. His pleasant voice could use finishing around the edges, but he contributes his share of energy and commitment to the show, making an especially emphatic case for "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" from the film "White Christmas." (The enduring title song from that movie makes an appropriately placed appearance, too.)
Although greater interpretive nuance would be welcome in places, this is a deftly constructed splash of cabaret that provides an eventful, involving celebration of an American genius.
If you go
"A Tribute to Irving Berlin" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $30. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.