Few American songwriters were more prolific or successful than Irving Berlin, the Russian-Jewish immigrant whose songs embodied the rhythm, spirit and optimism of his adopted country.
You may have heard of a little ditty called "God Bless America," which Berlin wrote in the dawning days of World War I and revised 20 years later into an anthem that still endures.
As we learn from Chip Deffaa's hokey but often charming two-hander "Irving Berlin's America," playing through Dec. 17 in O'Connell and Company's space in the Park School, Berlin's work was a direct extension of his fascinating life.
In a series of didactic vignettes, we learn about Berlin's serial struggles, from the time a pogrom drove his family out of their home in Russia to his scrappy youth in Manhattan and finally his meteoric rise to become America's most popular songwriter.
The setup of Deffaa's play is familiar, especially during a theater season in which intergenerational conversations seem to be the order of the day: An aging Berlin (Bill Group), holed up in his cozy apartment, begrudgingly entertains an eager young admirer (Matthew Mooney) who coaxes memories and songs from Berlin over the course of two acts and two hours.
Group and Mooney perform many of Berlin's hits and obscurities, from "I Love a Piano" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to forgotten crazes like "Sadie Salome (Go Home)" and "Grizzly Bear." Each of them, with their pun-laden lyrics and relentless energy, are a joy to hear.
Group and Mooney, both able singers with glimmers in their eyes, shine brightest when they're duetting on one of Berlin's simple melodies.
But these occasional stretches of symmetry are not quite enough to rescue the show from its lecture-style portrayal of Berlin's life and times. In the way of a particularly ambitious high school book report, the characters frequently drop names and dates in a way that feels artificial and sometimes cloying. The major points of Berlin's life get their due, but the transitions between them clunk.
What's more, Drew McCabe's production, like many shows from small companies in Buffalo, was vastly underrehearsed on opening night and not nearly ready for a paying audience. And that's without docking any points for a malfunctioning light board. This is a problem that can be solved by shorter runs, lighter seasons and extended rehearsal or preview periods.
Group, whose portrayal of Berlin was sensitive and moving in isolated spots, struggled to remember his lines. The effect was that the audience never had a chance to fully give ourselves over to the story because so much of his performance was a recitation rather than a rendition.
Mooney is an engaging and energetic performer with a powerful voice. But his grand mannerisms often oversell the material and seem mismatched to the intimate space. It does not help that much of Mooney's role, as a kind of guardian angel mixed with a fanboy, requires so much tap dancing. He struggles throughout with the rhythmic requirements of this complicated dance form.
Despite the production's flaws, audiences do come away with a new appreciation for Berlin's story and manifold contributions to American culture.
As Jerome Kern said of the songwriter, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." With a little less grace than you might hope for, this show succeeds in telling us why.
"Irving Berlin's America"
2 stars (out of four)
"Irving Berlin's America" runs through Dec. 17 in the Park School (4625 Harlem Road, Amherst). Tickets are $15 to $30. Call 848-0800 or visit oconnellandcompany.com.