Theater Review

"Coming Back Like a Song" at Berkshire Theatre Group plays like an unfinished melody

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STOCKBRIDGE — What to make of "Coming Back Like a Song!" Lee Kalcheim's play with music about the waning days of the Great American Songbook and the dawning of the age of rock 'n' roll.

Set on Christmas Eve 1958 in songwriter Irving Berlin's Beekman Place apartment, "Coming Back Like a Song!" — which is having its world premiere in a smoothly staged, persuasively acted production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage — imagines a late-night get-together among Berlin and two other giants of popular American music, Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen.

Berlin (played vividly by David Garrison with a crisp, efficient, staccatolike snap in his voice) has invited the others to his place for a night-cap and some schmoozing following an unsatisfying meeting of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers).

For Berlin, the songwriting is on the wall. "It's all over," he grumbles. "We're not gonna write anymore. We're finished. The top ten hit songs. All rock and roll. The top three all Elvis Presley."

"This," he says holding up a 45-rpm disc of Presley's "Hound Dog," "is the final nail in the coffin."

The way Van Heusen sees it, rock and roll is no passing fad. "(It) ain't leavin' us," David Rasche's jaunty, insouciant Van Heusen tells Berlin. "But we're not going anywhere. It's a big world ... and there's enough music in it for everyone."

Indeed, over the next decade or so Van Heusen, who wrote for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, among others, and who died in 1990 at age 77, would be nominated for three Tony Awards, an Emmy and seven Academy Awards, winning two — one in 1959 for "High Hopes," which he wrote with Sammy Cahn; the other in 1969 for another Sammy Cahn collaboration, "Call Me Irresponsible."

Berlin, best known, perhaps, for his Academy Award-winning "White Christmas," would add to his legendary career with a host of special honors and tributes before his death in 1989 at age 101.

Arlen, who died of cancer in 1986 at age 81, had his best work behind him. His last two Broadway musicals, "House of Flowers" in 1954 and "Jamaica" in 1957, were flops, and he would contribute to one more, "Saratoga," in 1959. His wife, Anya, would die of a brain tumor in 1970. And on this evening, he is anxious about his mentally unstable wife's possible return home after having spent seven years in a sanitarium.

Over the course of this Christmas Eve, these bedrock icons of the Great American Songbook exchange anecdotes about their time in Hollywood; their lives; their marriages; professional associations and the circumstances surrounding many of the songs they wrote. They drink, they quip, they recall and they sing — a lot, opening up the vault to a treasury of song the likes of which we hear these days only in cabaret or occasional concert.

This is an evening of legends of American popular music — one in his 40s, one in his 50s, and one 70 — telling tales, talking shop and singing, which they do in a kind of "and-then-I-wrote" cavalcade of hits.

That "Coming Back Like a Song!" finds resonance on Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage beyond its music mostly has to do with the dynamics among Garrison's magnanimous Berlin; Rasche's delightfully raffish, life-embracing, politically incorrect (when it comes to women), Van Heusen; and Philip Hoffman's poignant, vulnerable Arlen.

There is a nice bond among these three, who regard each other with respect, compassion and common experience. For all the hues the veteran members of this cast catch under Gregg Edelman's direction, "Coming Back Like a Song!" winds up less than the sum of its parts. Over the time we spend with them, there is little sense of movement. They sing, they talk, they drink, they sing; Berlin,winds up doing a few mitzvahs for Arlen and one for Van Heusen; they sing some more and then, with a nod toward "White Christmas," we're done; an unspoken question, "Yes, and?" hanging in the air.

Clearly, Kalcheim has deep love for the music these men and their peers gave us; for the legacy they have left.

When Hoffman's Arlen sings "Over the Rainbow," "I Thought About You," "This Time the Dream's on Me" and "The Man That Got Away" with poignant clarity and simplicity, you sense he is singing within the context of his wife's mental illness and a feeling of loss within Arlen. But there also is a larger sense of loss; that of a style of music that is — with the exceptions of pop culture, Broadway and Hollywood junkies and historians — alive only in the hearts and minds of those of us of a certain age

What would, I wonder, Arlen, Van Heusen and particularly Berlin have made of "Hair," that Age of Aquarius rock musical of the mid-'60s that is performing concurrently just up the path from the Fitzpatrick at BTG's Unicorn Theatre?

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or jborak@berkshireeagle.com




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