“There isn’t an Ethel Merman impersonation or anything like that. The songs are just sung as the songs,” Brian J. Shaw says of Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody. Still, avoiding comparisons with Merman would be impossible — several of the Broadway diva’s best-known hits were written by Berlin, meaning any fan will enjoy the latest InSeries production.
“A lot of people say that Irving Berlin didn’t just write American music, that he was American music,” says Shaw. “We work really hard to keep alive the music of the American Songbook, and Irving Berlin is a big part of that.” Berlin is less well-known than fellow musical theater/American Songbook giants George and Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. “So many people…are unaware of these songs or their place in history in terms of creating the American pop culture as we know it today,” Shaw says. It goes well beyond the unofficial second National Anthem “God Bless America” and the Bing Crosby holiday classic “White Christmas.” There’s also “Cheek to Cheek,” “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.”
Take Ethel Merman and her signature song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” — it was penned by Berlin for the musical Annie Get Your Gun. He also wrote the stage and screen musical Call Me Madam starring Merman. “That was another childhood favorite of mine,” Shaw says. “Once I learned who Ethel Merman was, I followed more of her work, and it led me to that.”
Shaw, an Ohio native, has both performed in and designed costumes for previous InSeries productions, but recently has been helping founder Carla Hubner run the organization. For Irving Berlin, Shaw served as assistant director to Abel Lopez, who has helmed many previous InSeries shows, including Bari Biern’s joint revue of songs by Berlin and Harold Arlen (“Somewhere Over The Rainbow”). This time around, six cast members perform nearly 30 Berlin songs over the course of 90 minutes.
“You’re getting quite a whirlwind tour of Irving Berlin’s works,” Shaw says. “There are little historical anecdotes and factoids that people will get as unobtrusively as possible [but] it’s a musical revue and is way more about the music than it is trying to give you a history lesson.”
Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody opens Friday, Jan. 6, at 8 p.m., and runs weekends to Jan. 28 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $22 to $42. Call 202-204-7763 or visit inseries.org.
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