What: Puttin’ on the Ritz
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To May 8
Rating: 4.5 (out of five)
Four decades ago the Belfry Theatre’s artistic director of the time, Don Shipley, came up with a sure-fire idea. Why not hatch a musical revue using the songs of America’s most popular songwriter, Irving Berlin?
What could go wrong? And indeed, the show was a hit back in 1977. The Belfry remounted it in 1994. Now Shipley’s Puttin’ on the Ritz is back for a third time, partly to celebrate the Fernwood theatre’s 40th anniversary
And the good news is, the show’s pretty great.
I didn’t see the original production, but did catch the 1994 revival, directed by Glynis Leyshon. That incarnation seemed a bit tired, tepid and lacking in pizzazz. Leyshon oversees this one, too — happily, this is a superior version that catches fire.
So what’s going on? Well, for starters, the set by Cory Sincennes is terrific. It’s a classy period confection, with four art-deco columns lit different colours from within, deco footlight covers and old-timey arches. The band consists of two grand pianos played with panache by Nico Rhodes and Brad L’Ecuyer (the latter switches from piano to strings, percussion and other synthesized sounds).
There are four singer/dancers. The men, Andrew MacDonald-Smith and John Ullyatt, sport spiffy 1930s-style suits before undertaking scads of costume changes ranging from top hats and tails to straight-jackets and rain coats. Katrina Reynolds and Lauren Bowler are similarly decked out in retro finery. Everyone sings and dances well. Equally important, Leyshon, assisted by choreographer Jessica Hickman, ensures this production gets what it needs: greyhound-swift pacing (necessary, as 51 Berlin songs are sampled), broad humour (but not overbearingly so) and an overriding sense of fun, style and chutzpah.
The strong cast makes it look easy — although it’s not, of course. Belting out dozens of songs while dancing and enacting mini-skits with virtually no breaks isn’t for the faint-hearted. In a sense, it’s Berlin’s songs that emerge as the real stars. A song-writing machine who scored his first hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, back in 1911, he’s beloved for his unerring sense of melody and irresistibly corny lyrics (“I’m just a fella, a fella with an umbrella…” etc.). This show is jam-packed with familiar tunes such as There’s No Business Like Show Business, Sisters, I’ve Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm and even God Bless America.
Much of the humour pivots on gentle gags. For instance, Sisters is sung by Reynolds and Bowler dressed in nun outfits. For I’ve Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm, Reynolds and Ullyatt are hobos huddled under a blanket. Corny? Yes. But such simple send-ups do mirror the deliberate innocence and average-Joe vernacular of Berlin’s lyrics. Somehow, the approach seems fitting.
The show achieves and maintains a high standard. On Friday night there were remarkable moments. For instance, in a dance-happy section entitled Steppin’ Out, the dexterous MacDonald-Smith revealed an limber-limbed talent for physical comedy. And Reynolds wowed the crowd during such torchy ballads as How About Me and Suppertime. She’s a tremendously promising singer. In a way, with these songs, Reynolds belied her talent somewhat by shifting her timbre theatrically from one phrase to another, almost giving the impression of a tossed off pastiche. She was impressive nonetheless — a tremendously promising singer.
There’s something uniquely exhilarating about a well-produced musical revue. And this is one of them. Putting’ on the Ritz is an entertaining and satisfying night at the theatre. Fans of these songs won’t be disappointed. Neither will those who, by some miracle, are not yet familiar with Irving Berlin, the titan of American song.