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* * Irving Berlin's America* *

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Original Cast Records

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They say it's wonderful. And it is. One of five shows in development celebrating the songs of Irving Berlin has been carefully put together here in the new musical, “Irving Berlin's America” by producer/author Chip Deffaa in this infectious collection that is sure to be a “must have” for lovers of the great American songbook. After all, it's the music of America's most successful composer. His songs defined an era we'll never see again and some are a hundred years old.  The prolific songwriter, who wore his heart on his sleeve, captured everything worth remembering from the embers of a budding romance to the heartache of war to losing your greatest love along with some of the most robust anthems ever written. He hit it big and there was no stopping him. For instance, his first 'mature ballad,' “When I Lost You,” sold one million copies the first week it was released. That was in 1912, written after the sudden death of his first wife of five months. Such was this man's impact early on in a career that lasted almost a century. Some other fun facts; he gave Mae West one of her first raunchy ditties (“Grizzly Bear” - written with George Botsford) that shook people up. He taught Fannie Brice the Yiddish accent she built a career on. Too, he had the respect of his peers to the end of his life – and that remains today.

 

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  Throughout his career, Berlin stitched together pieces of time that would last an eternity. Other greats from his generation made their mark like George M. Cohan, the Gershwin's, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, etc. But, Berlin reigned as king of Tin Pan Alley for longer than anyone else. He penned more hits and made more money than all his contemporaries. A major part of that legacy in song lives on today and is generously captured on this rich new disc. As America's most successful songwriter, it's hard to imagine that his life story has not been presented on stage – until now. The man is an institution.

A young local fan, "Jack," charms his way into the ailing Berlin's home as the CD opens. Soon, the pair are playfully crooning some of Berlin's toe-tapping rarities, “All By Myself” into “”Nobody Knows (And Nobody Seems To Care.”) This kicks things off with a contagious bang with the mature Michael Townsend Wright (Berlin) and the perky crooner (Jack Saleeby) duetting at the piano.

Saleeby offers a simple “I Love A Piano” and Townsend Wright retorts with “Simple Melody” in medley on “Musical Demon.” Both are delicious examples of a simpler time. Fleeting references are made to George M. Cohan as Berlin talks about his old friend and sings Cohan's “Mary's A Grand Old Name.” Saleeby follows with Cohan's “The Yankee Doodle Boy” with some deft tapping. “Alexander's Ragtime Band” is given a robust treatment with Berlin recalling the song's debut at a Friar's Club function with Saleeby (now as Cohan) gleefully belting the catchy ditty as Berlin regales in the night one of his most famous hits was born. Townsend Wright does a strong job on another rarity, “Everybody Step” which leads into Saleeby teaching tap basics to his older mentor with a song and dance reprise. A bouncy “I'll See You In C-U-B-A” is initially all fun as Berlin looks back on the romantic trip with his wife that ended sadly. It is a poignant moment and Mr. Wright is heartbreaking on the aforementioned “When I Lost You,” Berlin's memorial to Dorothy.

The album overflows with so many of these special moments that it will make the listener feel they missed a fabled time. Along the way, are references to friends including George M. Cohan and vaudevillian Eddie Foy (and the Seven Little Foy's) as well as Al Jolson who is also referenced. Full disclosure: Mr. Deffaa produced successful musicals on Cohan and Eddie Foy and family. He also produced and wrote the off-Broadway show, “One Night With Fannie Brice.” At Saleeby's request, Townsend Wright sings a riotous Brice staple,”Sadie Salome Go Home.” Other highlights include: “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” “Pack Up Your Sins And Go To the Devil” and “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning.”

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Veteran Michael Townsend Wright, who was a standout in Deffaa's revue, “The Seven Little Foys,” has the perfect timbre in his warm, lived-in baritone that captures the essence of these beatified old songs that tell stories anyone today can relate to.
Newbie Jack Saleeby is a fine singer, who, at times, recalls a young Matthew Broderick, particularly on those vibrant upbeat tunes. If he occasionally lacks the requisite heft to capture the heartfelt emotion on a trenchant ballad, this is only due to his youth. But, he is a true showman and a perfect match to his worldly musical partner.

Every song captures the spirit of America and it's times in a relevant way that deserves a life. With luck, astute producers will see the potential here. As alluded to, it remains a mystery as well as a tragedy that, in a world of mundane excuses for theatrical greatness, the story of Irving Berlin has not made it to the legitimate stage – until now. And, what a treat it is. It really doesn't get much better than Irving Berlin songs that have carved their legacy into the hearts and history of a country that made a little boy from Russian emigrants become the world's most successful songwriter. Let's hope the powers that be right this wrong. “Irving Berlin's America” cries for it's place in American lore. And, it's overdue. As Chip Deffaa notes, some of these rarities, and rediscoveries “have not been heard or recorded in a century!” It's time.

The rest of this team consists of terrific music director Richard Danley (with a special shout-out for his fusion of melancholy and ragtime keyboard wizardry,) heading up the band with Grammy winner Vince Giordano (bass and banjo) and Andy Stein (violin.)
The album was released  January 27, 2014 on Original Cast Records and is available CDBaby.com, Amazin.com, CDUniverse.com,iTunes, etc.