The nearly 1,000 songs Irving Berlin wrote in his 101 years on earth reflect American life during the first half of the 20th century--its wars, its jazz age, its elevation of class and glamour during the Depression--better than those of any other popular composer.
Though Berlin was a Russian immigrant who wrote songs for Broadway actors and movie stars, his music captured the emotions and simple aspirations of regular people. Songs including "Count Your Blessings," "I've Got the Sun in the Morning" and "Blue Skies" carry an innocence and sense of determination that say much about the American people and their spirit.
Actress Carol Lawrence brought that spirit to the threshold of the 21st century Thursday at Founders Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center in the first of her four-day engagement with "Puttin' On the Ritz: The Irving Berlin Songbook."
This revue of some 40 Berlin songs--performed by Lawrence, four supporting singers-dancers and two pianists that continues through Sunday--managed to create a night rich in nostalgia. But it also underscored how Americans' dreams of two, three and more generations ago weren't all that much different from our own.
"Puttin' On the Ritz" is from the same Broadway Songbooks Series produced by Jeffrey Finn that brought "A Swell Party: The Cole Porter Songbook" featuring Melba Moore here last fall. This two-hour show, playing to Lawrence's strengths as a hoofer and a singer, contained more dancing than the Porter revue had.
Lawrence, who played Maria in the original Broadway production of "West Side Story," tapped up a near-storm during some numbers, despite the fact that her knee was visibly wrapped beneath her nylons.
The tap dancing added percussive emphasis to the march of "This Is the Army, Mr. Jones" and reached a high point with Lawrence's ambitious but not quite perfect stepping to "Let Yourself Go." Otherwise, as the ensemble threaded its way around the stage with simpler moves, the music took the spotlight.
Lawrence's voice has a rich tone that, if not exactly stalwart, still stands tall. She sounded best on slower numbers. Her simple reading of "Always," sung while she was perched on a stool, made for the night's most moving moments.
She showed strength in an upbeat reading of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and her ability to belt out a tune on "There's No Business Like Show Business." She kept theatrical embellishment to a minimum, but wasn't above speaking (rather than singing) a line here and there to underscore its meaning.
Less-familiar numbers came like little treasures during the fast-paced program. "Be Careful, It's My Heart" sung by ensemble member Karen Culp expressed a knowing fear at falling in love. "In the YMCA" (not to be confused with the Village People song) gave Jeffry Denman a chance to mug inside of Berlin's comic lyric.
The ensemble's five members worked in mix-and-match arrangements, often in clever medleys written by music supervisor David Andrews Rogers that brought similarly themed material together.
Most humorous of these was the combination of "Can't Get a Man With a Gun," sung emphatically by Susann Fletcher, with "Old Fashioned Wedding" and "Anything You Can Do" with Fletcher and Culp squaring off over wedding arrangements.
Still, Lawrence is the heart of the show and her enthusiasm for the material, as well as brief asides on Berlin's life and craft, made this music and its composer come alive. Berlin, who's first song came in 1907, still speaks to us today.
* "Puttin' On the Ritz: The Irving Berlin Songbook" with Carol Lawrence, Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Performances at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday. $42. (714) 556-2787.