Creative limitations can lead to positive results. Take, for instance, I Love a Piano, a revue built from the song trunk of pop composer-lyricist Irving Berlin which dates back to 1990, the year after he passed away at the age of 101.
Applying to the Berlin estate for the performance rights of his musical library for a one-night AIDS benefit, the show’s co-creators Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley were told they could use any of the 1.200 songs Berlin wrote, but they could not have a character represent him onstage or even mention his name.
Initially hampered by those conditions, that led the duo to craft a show around a battered wooden upright piano with a broken key. It would be passed from owner to owner during the first half of the 20th century — Berlin’s heyday.
What was supposed to run for a single night has remained popular for more than 30 years, including an exuberant, energetic, entertaining production now playing at The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton.
It begins, as Berlin’s career did, at a sheet music shop in 1910. There we hear some of his earliest output, like the justifiably forgettable novelty number “Snooky Ookums,” as well as his first commercial hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
From there the scene moves to a ‘20s speakeasy, the Depression-era doldrums on New York’s Lower East Side, a ‘30s movie theater and a Big Band ballroom in the early ‘40s. The first act ends as World Wat II breaks out, but Berlin’s invariably hummable and often jingoistic tunes continue to be performed at the iconic Stage Door Canteen.
Most of Berlin’s early career songs were aimed at radio play and the pop charts. The second act of I Love a Piano, however, largely focuses on his theater songs, as we watch auditions for one of Berlin’s more popular musicals, Annie Get Your Gun.
With the many American songbook standards represented, this show is likely to appeal to an older crowd for its nostalgic value. Chances are they can recall where they were when they first heard such perennial favorites as “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Always,” but these are really songs for all ages.
Directing and choreographing the Wick production is DJ Salisbury, who had staged I Love a Piano two times previously. He de-emphasizes the chain ownership of the music box narrative, placing the focus on the revue format and specifically on dance. Fortunately, he has the loose-limbed, energetic performers to sell this approach.
The show’s six-member cast divides into three generic couples. There’s the mature couple (Wick veterans Aaron Bower and Alex Jorth), the dewy-eyed ingenues (Christina Carlucci and Ryan Matthew Perry) and the romantics in the middle (Tari Kelly and James Patterson).
There is not a weak link in the bunch, though Patterson is a standout dancer and vocalist. Kelly scores with much of the comic material, then switches gears well with the dramatic “Suppertime,” repurposed here as a torch song to a war casualty. Perry and Carlucci morph into Fred and Ginger proving, as the song says, “The Best Things Happen While You Dance.” And Bower and Jorth nail the overlapping duet of “Old-Fashioned Wedding.”
As is typical at the Wick, the scenic design is simple, with most of the venue visuals supplied by stage-wide projections, credited to Kacey Koploff. Less typical is the live seven-piece band, conducted by musical director Michael Ursua. A piano may engender love, but a multi-piece band really makes a musical revue soar.
I LOVE A PIANO, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton. Through Sun,, Nov. 12. $79-$100. 561-995-2333.