By Dale King
If your holiday shopping route has taken you from Interstate 95 to the Gardens Mall by way of PGA Boulevard, you’ve passed an opportunity to enjoy a musical show at a struggling but determined performance center trying hard to establish itself as a destination of theatrical choice.
Since Nov. 30, the PGA Arts Center has been presenting Irving Berlin Salutes America, a tune-filled, four-person homage to the man who spent nearly a century crafting songs that have become part of America’s melodious fabric.
Alan Jacobson, creator of WaistWatchers: The Musical, which enjoyed several successful runs in South Florida and is now touring the U.S., wrote Irving Berlin Salutes America, which debuted in 2002, but has been tweaked and updated to be as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.
Several chances still remain to see the show before it closes with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday. You could probably relax and enjoy the 90-minute, intermission-free show in less time than you’d spend looking for a parking space at a nearby shopping center.
Jacobson has tapped some fine talent, even at a time when many local actors and singers are committed to other shows. Carbonell Award-winner Leah Sessa joins forces with performer, music educator and cabaret singer John Lariviere and producer, director, drama and music educator Melissa Boher Jacobson. Music director and pianist Kevin Coughlin is truly a part of the show, too, as he frequently adds his voice to the musical selections.
Andy Fiacco does double duty as choreographer and the person running the computer for rear-stage projections. They are colorful and dynamic, but the black-and-white clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers beats out the other visuals on the audience appeal meter.
The writer/director plucked some of Berlin’s best melodies, among them, “This Is a Great Country,” “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Always,” “Heat Wave”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, and of course “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
“I wanted to use the power of the theater and live music to take people’s minds off the daily stresses, and to remember that we must fight against the divisiveness and bring back a sense of unity and patriotism,” said Jacobson, explaining why he chose to revive the Berlin paean.
“Who better to look to for this kind of upbeat and moving music than Irving Berlin?” he added. “This show also exemplifies the tremendous contributions of immigrants. Mr. Berlin was one, and one who proudly served in the American armed services.”
The performers not only sing, but offer informative tidbits about the famed composer. Born Israel Beilin in Russia, his father, Moses, a cantor, brought the family to the U.S. when the boy was 5 and settled in New York. Irving pretty much stayed there for his 101-year lifetime.
A soldier who served the U.S. in World War I, Berlin wrote many songs about World War II and created an award-winning show, This Is the Army which toured the world.
The vocalists share some delightful versions of Berlin’s wartime songs, renditions that generated considerable applause from a meager audience last weekend – a gallery that should have been much fuller.
Any Berlin song is fair game. The singers join voices in perfect harmony for the composer’s “Play a Simple Melody.” The pleasant notes continue with “I Love a Piano,” a song that gave rise to a musical of its own.
With a tip of the Stetson to Berlin’s top-notch Broadway entry, Annie Get Your Gun, the group sings, “Old Fashioned Wedding,” “There’s No Business like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do.”
Of course, “White Christmas” is definitely on the song roster, and seems an appropriate way to work a seasonal motif into the show.
With the finale approaching, the performers regroup for “God Bless America,” to which the audience responded by standing up, singing along and placing their hands over their hearts. They turned that stance into an ovation and held it through the finale. They continued standing – apparently hoping for more – as the performers left the stage.
Irving Berlin Salutes America will wrap up with shows today and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the PGA Arts Center, 4076 PGA Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens. Tickets are available by calling 855-448-7469 or visiting www.pgaartscenter.com.