The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue

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Chip Deffaa’s

The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue

13th Street Repertory Theater, NYC, November 9, 2014

Reviewed by Rob Lester for Cabaret Scenes

The-Irving-Berlin-Ragtime-Revue-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212Stuffed with lively songs—more than 40—wow!—Chip Deffaa’s The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue revved up for a run that ends too soon (a matinee on Sunday, November 23), but rarely runs out of smiles and spirit. And this Ragtime Revue never runs ragged. With a cast of young performers and a couple of seasoned featured players, this is not some redundant rah-rah revue of the great songwriter’s most famous songs or an attempt to gloss over his entire career. Thank Goodness. As the title more than suggests, it’s his very early numbers from the era of zippy, zestful zing: the time of ragtime. We get some selections rarely performed or recorded, including some from his beginnings when he was collaborating with other writers. In fact, some have never been recorded—although that will be untrue, happily, in short order as the company is recording a cast album already.

For a cavalcade of the of the young Berlin’s output, beginning in his teen-aged singing waiter days, it seems appropriate to cast this with the young performers employed. Adding to the supportive “one big family” feel is that there are participants, like the graceful Emily Bordonaro, who have worked with Deffaa for years and Michael Czyz, seen in a central role in his just-closed Theater Boys, shows style and generosity in sharing the limelight with likability. Some in the large group are still in their teens or not much past that. While not all are at the same level of polish and panache in performance, I suspect those who seemed more tentative when seen on the first day before an audience will have relaxed and settled in before long. In fact, it already seemed to be happening before intermission. With much of the ensemble seated on stage for long periods while soloists performed, to avoid traffic jams and a parade feel, some were uneven in their demeanor when not in the spotlight. Some seemed serene, some seemed spaced-out, one appeared visibly nervous (hey, it’s tough to be on view for long stretches while anticipating and waiting) and one was notably “reacting” much more than the rest to the point of sticking out.

The youngest fellow, Jonah Barricklo, bubbled with bright-eyed enthusiasm and joy. And he came through with flying colors. Chatty historical tidbits were tossed in without feeling too much like a rushed history lesson in Cliff’s Notes. This varied in format from actors talking as themselves to the audience, to Andrew Lanctot donning spectacles to “become” Berlin for some first-person accounts to a recreation of how writer-director Deffaa conceived the show and missed the chance to meet the aged legend when he turned down an invitation to go Christmas caroling outside with songwriter friend John Wallowitch. (He never imagined the known-to-be-reclusive creator of “White Christmas” would invite the carolers inside and chat with them—but he did!) While such iconic songs are not on the radar for this ragtime romp, another number associate with a holiday sort of is. The melody for the familiar “Easter Parade” began with an earlier lyric—“Smile and Show Your Dimple” and it’s that which we hear, charmingly, in this show. Suffice to say that if I’d been blessed with dimples, they’d have been showing for much of the evening—and after.

While there is something to be said for starting with a bang and some multi-stanza Berlin bonanza blasts, it seemed odd and even unwise to wait so long before settling down and letting the audience hear the actors speak, in a “welcoming” manner, about what kind of show we were “about” to see—not the famous career-spanning hits, etc. Although I came in knowing that and the title is more than a clue for the otherwise clueless, it would work better earlier, if deemed necessary.

Oh, what a treat to hear rarities like “The Syncopated Walk,” “The Ragtime Soldier Man,” “That Draggy Rag” and “Everything in America Is Ragtime.” Unavoidably, this smaller scope means a lot of similar (but fun and frothy) material and a dearth of drama or sensitive moments. But there’s nothing so bad about a holiday from seriousness, especially when there is snazzy jazziness, a syncopation situation, and some choreography to add style and flair (co-choreographers Tyler DuBoys and Alex Acevedo). While a few numbers came off as too “polite” and reserved for our own good and good time, many had the necessary oomph. With some being appropriately brief, clustering them without breaks for applause would make the evening (or afternoon) feel fleet rather than episodic and longish. The highlight of the show is the Act Two opener (no spoilers here, but I’ll just say it looked like everyone had been given two shots of adrenalin and came out as if jumping off a trampoline or fired out of a cannon. It was simply terrific!).

When singers were in their most advantageous keys and material, and embraced the matter at hand, everything clicked. For example, when Lanctot doffed the specs for a spectacular crooning moment, seated on the lip of the stage, it was one of the times the production floated on marvelous musical air and the 21st century allegedly in progress outside the doors disappeared for a dreamy time warp. While some other solos were winning, and letting a woman sing of her attraction to “The Girl on the Magazine Cover” was refreshing and inclusive, group singing provided even more highlights. I would have liked more solo work from musical director Richard Danley, longtime Deffaa left-and-right-hand man at the keyboard to bring more attention to the stylings of the period and specifics of ragtime elements and as a change of, well, if not pace, then focus. It would be welcome to just turn our attention to the composer side rather than the words. Danley is certainly the man for the job and this latest collaboration allows them to incorporate a few favorites they’ve included in other shows that sampled the period. (This includes their work on the one-woman musical autobiography One Night with Fanny Brice has one night more scheduled at 13th Street Rep at the moment—November 24, the night after the last performance of the Ragtime Revue). Long live vaudeville!

Tickets online or in person.

For more information, see

13th Street Repertory Theater, NYC,

50 West 13 Street, NYC


Rob Lester

2015 is native New Yorker Rob Lester's eighth year as contributing writer, beginning by reviewing a salute to Frank Sinatra, whose recordings have played on his personal soundtrack since the womb. (His Cabaret Scenes Foundation member mom started him with her favorite; like his dad, he became an uber-avid record collector/ fan of the Great American Songbook's great singers and writers.) Soon, he was attending shows, seeking out up-and-comers and already-came-ups, still reading and listening voraciously. He also writes for and, has been cabaret-centric as awards judge, panel member/co-host, and produces benefit/tribute shows, including one for us.