Sign up for our free newsletter
Let’s be charitable and assume that no one associated with Arena Stage had actually seen Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano when the company booked Ray Roderick’s barely cruiseship-worthy touring revue into the Lincoln Theatre. Prior to its opening, though, Arena staff must have caught at least a tech rehearsal, at which point they had an obligation to their audience to step in. Roderick’s busily insipid staging probably can’t be entirely ignored contractually, but the performers—all young, energetic, and hapless—might still have been urged not to smile quite so relentlessly when singing sad songs, to sell happy ones a bit less fiercely, and to trust the material just a little. It’s sturdy stuff, really, if not as instantly familiar today as in Berlin’s heyday as a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith. His melodies are catchy even when sung characterlessly in snippets and snatches, and his comic lyrics clever enough that they don’t require pop-eyed delivery. The show’s wobbly central conceit, involving the shifting fortunes of a battered upright with a broken key, seems chiefly designed to evoke Ain’t Misbehavin’ as the lights come up, but nothing thereafter suggests the director or his cast have ever ventured into a theater outside a theme park. The singing is mostly charmless, the dancing more vigorous than accomplished, the production bargain-basement, and the evening utterly tone-deaf when it comes to nuance and context. Take the song “Supper Time,” used here as the climax of a World War II songset, with the lyric “that man o’ mine/Ain’t comin’ home no more” referring to a doughboy lost in action. When the show plays one-night stands in high-school auditoriums and grange halls, that may work, but it should have dawned on someone that this repurposing of a song written as a black wife’s lament for her lynched husband (first sung by Ethel Waters in 1933’s As Thousands Cheer) would feel significantly less apt when an all-white cast is performing at the theater that once anchored D.C.’s Black Broadway. Roderick thought nothing of telling the Washington Post how “relevant” his show was, “particularly with this change in administration.” But could he be bothered to alter the songlist for the D.C. run to acknowledge that Berlin’s final Broadway musical, Mr. President, premiered just a few blocks away? Nah. JFK and Jackie may have heard the ditties “It Gets Lonely in the White House” and “The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous,” but back then, as a Berlin lyric has it, there was “no business like show business”…and that’s like no business these folks know.