When one thinks about the unforgettable lyricists of Tin Pan Alley (a.k.a. “The Great American Songbook”), Johnny Burke’s name doesn’t come immediately to mind – but that’s only because the names Berlin, Porter, Gershwin, and Hammerstein take a backseat to no one. As Playhouse on Park’s current production of Swinging on a Star (The Johnny Burke Musical), running through July 29th, makes clear however: his lyrics rank right up there with those of the more familiar names. The title song, “What’s New,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Personality,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” “Here’s that Rainy Day,” and “Misty,” just to name a very few, are irresistible and invaluable contributions to the history of 20th-Century American popular music.
POP’s production, snappily directed and choreographed by Darlene Zoller with the ever-confident musical direction of Colin Britt (with a swinging band!), stages a boatload of Burke’s songs in a cavalcade of witty and fast-paced numbers. Presented chronologically, the songs trace Burke’s career from the speakeasies of Chicago to the Hollywood of the Hope/Crosby Road movies, all the way to that place where the truly great songs dwell – in everyone’s hearts.
And the talented 10-person ensemble do the songs far more than justice – with a fine balance between presenting the familiar in the expected ways and making the songs their own. Favorites include Scott Scaffidi’s Depression-era “Pennies,” Hilary Ekwall’s “What’s New,” Kevin Barlowski’s hilarious “When Stanislaus Got Married,” and Spencer Pond’s tapping turn as “Dr. Rhythm.” But, with the bounty of excellent songs, the other featured singers, including Dakota Dutcher, Marissa Famiglietti, Amanda Forker, and Jenna Levitt (along with the talents of Shannon Farrell and Mackenzie Friedmann) get several opportunities to shine, as well.
The entire “Supper Club” finale (with one remarkable performance after another) is alone worth the price of admission, but, believe me, you’ll want to be there from the beginning.
As always at Playhouse on Park, or so it seems to this reviewer, the technical side of the production (Steve Mountzoures, set; Jennifer Philip, lights; Erin Kacmarcik, costumes; and Mike Firnhaber, sound) was simple but flawless. The focus remains, as it should, on the performances.
My one quibble with the production – with the script really – is questioning the wisdom of trying to recapture the chemistry of Hope, Crosby, and Lamour in The Road segment. Yes, Burke’s witty lyrics were undeniably key to the success of the movie franchise, but Hopes and Crosbies don’t grow on trees. And as much as I thoroughly enjoy the talents of Messers Barlowski and Scaffidi, there are only one Hope and one Crosby. Why would book writer Michael Leeds want to put such a burden as that on any performer? Nonetheless, if the audience doesn’t know the Road movies (or hasn’t seen them in a long time), this show will give them their next thing to Netflix.
After all is sung and done, however, I’m betting you’ll leave POP feeling “like someone in love.”