One year after mounting a kid-friendly production of Seussical (a musical production based on the stories of children’s author Dr. Seuss) the Walnut Grove Secondary theatre students are reaching out to the other end of the audience spectrum, presenting a show chronicling the life and times of Irving Berlin.
From his early life in Russia to his decades-long career in America, which spanned ragtime to Broadway to writing, well, scores of movie scores, the prolific composer’s music will make up the backbone of Steppin’ Out With My Baby a theatrical revue written by WGSS theatre instructor Kevin Fatkin and presented by his Theatre in the Grove students.
Berlin, who came to America as a child after the family’s home was burned during a pogrom, lived to be 101 years old. In that time he wrote literally hundreds of songs, many based on events taking place in his own life, said Fatkin.
Steppin’ Out With My Baby plays out along the same lines as ABBA’s hit musical Mama Mia, telling Berlin’s story, and bringing it to life using more than 35 pieces of his own music — including I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm and Puttin’ on the Ritz.
Unlike the works of Dr. Seuss, most of Berlin’s songs were unfamiliar to Fatkin’s young performers, who range from Grade 9 to 12.
Most of them knew Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better (from Annie Get Your Gun) but the show has also served as an opportunity to introduce them to a wide range of classic Berlin tunes, while incorporating such iconic figures as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe and Al Jolson.
“The list of characters goes on and on, it’s really quite neat,” said Fatkin.
Rather than feature one or two students and place the others in supporting roles, the review allows each student to enjoy the spotlight in turn, as they sing a solo backed up by 30 of their classmates.
“I wanted to do a review where everyone has a moment to shine,” he said.
“The girl doing Rosemary Clooney’s Love, You Done Me Wrong, from White Christmas, will blow your doors off,” the director predicted.
Apart from having one student portray Berlin, the students will each play several roles during the course of the show. In some cases, several students will play one role.
Fatkin has four Astaires and two Rogers lined up, but it won’t be confusing, the director vows.
With the passing of a hat and cane, for example, it will be obvious to the audience that they are following one character (Astaire), even though he is being played by four different actors.
In addition to giving the young performers and others their age a bit of a lesson in the history of American music, the review promises to be a nice trip down memory lane for older audience members.
One day Fatkin noticed a number of seniors leaving a class at the community centre next door to WGSS, so he ran into the school and grabbed a handful of posters to give them.
Based on the voices he’s hearing on the reservation line, he said, it worked.
“Seniors seem to be the big ticket buyers,” he said.
The show will also include screened footage of Berlin when he appeared on Broadway, and an eight-minute montage at the end, which strings together several of his biggest hits in one fluid number.
Steppin’ Out With My Baby runs from March 4 to 12, at WGSS, 8919 Walnut Grove Dr. with show at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each. Call 604-882-0220 ext. 580 to reserve.