Showtunes Theatre: The Music of Irving Berlin

Never was “musical training” more irrelevant than in the case of Irving Berlin. Aside from being the son of a cantor, he had none (is it true he could only play on the black keys of the piano?), only the inexplicable, almost frightening ability, again and again, to pull sounds from his head and insert them in yours. Growing up, archetypally, on the Lower East Side, in a single-parent family more than usually impoverished even for that 'hood, Berlin went to work early as a Tin Pan Alley song-plugger, soaking up everything there was to soak about pop music and wringing it back out in a seemingly effortless and endless series of hits. Of all the Great American Songbook composers, he was surely the most chameleonic. He could come up with a rouser as square, in all senses, as “God Bless America,” or something as intricately sophisticated as “Puttin' On the Ritz”—in which he divides 16 beats, four bars of four, into 7 + 7 + 2, securing the off-kilter sevens with a rhyme (“If you're blue and you don't know where/To go to, why don't you go where”). Then there's the white-mink suavity of “Let's Face the Music and Dance” vs. the elegiac “White Christmas” and the klieg-lit anthem “There's No Business Like Show Business” and a dozen or a billion more tunes with nothing in common but their unbudgeableness from the national psyche. Tonight's revue, starring Shelly Burch, Louis Hobson, and many more, celebrates his legacy. GAVIN BORCHERT

Sat., Feb. 5, 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 6, 2 p.m., 2011

 
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