Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 9, 2018

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Coming Back Like a Song!

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
Through July 21, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

Photo by Emma Rothernberg-Ware
Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) offers the perfect contrast to its electrifying 90th anniversary season opener, “Church & State,” with an affectionate world premiere production of Lee Kalcheim’s “Coming Back Like a Song!,” set on Christmas Eve 1956 in Irving Berlin’s New York apartment, where fellow songwriters Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen have joined him for drinks after an irksome ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) meeting.

Named after a song Berlin wrote for Bing Crosby in the 1946 movie “Blue Skies,” the intermission-less 85-minute play with music features snippets of 37 songs (including most of their greatest hits) by all three composers, which they sing as they contemplate their futures competing with the popularity of rock and roll and the past hits which ranked them among America’s greatest songwriters.

“Der Bingle” (Crosby), Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland are among the memorable performers of the trio’s music who turn up in anecdotes that may be amusing or serious. Two about Sinatra by Van Heusen, who even calls “the Chairman” during the show, involve a Christmas party and an emergency room visit. More holiday cheer is delivered with a clever turn of phrase by Berlin in literally the show’s last word.

The threesome demonstrates an often touching concern for each other’s success and happiness. After Berlin is encouraged to sing his earliest ballad, “When I Lost You,” written in memory of his first wife, Dorothy, who died after six months of marriage, he calls Arlen’s hospitalized wife, Anya, and sings her “Always,” the rights to which he gave his second wife (of 63 years), Ellin. The on-stage piano is actually played idiomatically and discreetly, off-stage by music director Daniel Mollett.

Three Broadway actors create distinctive portraits of their characters: David Garrison is an irascible Berlin; Philip Hoffman, an intense Arlen; and David Rasche, an easygoing Van Heusen. Their singing voices are appropriately workmanlike. Direction by Tony-nominated actor Gregg Edelman is sensitive and well-paced. Scenic design of the single living-room set by Randall Parsons is elegant and sumptuous. Costume design by David Murin is period perfect.