Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood

“Cheek to Cheek,” an intelligent, entertaining musical revue that showcases two dozen of the songs that Irving Berlin wrote for movie musicals, makes no claims that his work in Hollywood eclipsed everything else he did. How could it? This is the man who composed “God Bless America,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,”  “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and some 1,500 other songs,  including the scores for twenty Broadway musicals, such as “Annie Get Your Gun.”

But Hollywood is a smart focus for “Cheek to Cheek,” which York Theater is bringing back, after an initial run last December, to its temporary home in the basement of St Jean Baptiste Church, with four of the six cast members new. All are in fine voice, with elegant and agile moves…and perhaps a bit too much cheer.

Jeremy Benton, Darien Crago

It’s in Hollywood that Berlin started writing dance music for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – including two numbers, we’re told, that became dance crazes in the 1930s: The Piccolino from “Top Hat,” and The Yam from “Carefree.”  And dancing is obviously “Cheek to Cheek” director and choreographer Randy Skinner’s first love. He has been nominated for four Tony Awards as a choreographer, including for “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.” His six dancers, singly, in pairs and as an ensemble, make the most of the relatively small stage, smoothly offering tap-dance, ballroom, those old dance crazes, aided by a lively five-piece band.

In between the singing and dancing, the cast cheerfully relates sometimes-memorable anecdotes about Berlin’s time in Hollywood, in a script by Barry Kleinbort. A song Berlin wrote in 1917 with the title “Smile and Show Your Dimple” was a flop, until it was given new lyrics and repurposed for the movies; it became “Easter Parade,” the title song of the 1948 movie musical starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. (“Easter Parade” was going to star Gene Kelly, but, we’re told, he broke his ankle playing touch football, so producer Arthur Freed convinced Astaire to come out of retirement.)

In 1963, MGM was planning a musical of Berlin’s songs called “Say It With Music.” Berlin worked on the score for six years, but a new studio head came aboard and killed the project. “The new regime declares that movie musicals are a thing of the past” – a common refrain over the decades, until they periodically change their minds.

  The cast performs one of the songs from that never-produced movie, “They Used to Play It By Ear”

The song choices are probably the most sophisticated aspect of the show. The show, for example, does not include the huge hit song “White Christmas” from the 1942 film “Holiday Inn” (the only one of Berlin’s nine Academy Award nominations that resulted in a win) but rather three lesser known songs from the 1954 movie “White Christmas”; ditto “Easter Parade”

But that doesn’t mean it completely avoids familiar tunes. (See songlist below.)

“Cheek to Cheek” ends with “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet in 1936 – in the midst of the Great Depression, an era of great anxiety. “On the surface, the song spoke of love, romance and dancing,” a cast member says. “But to the audience of the time,” another adds, “the song spoke of something even more fundamental – survival and hope.”

Then they sing the first verse, standing still, under a somber purple light. The moment proved a highlight for me, and made me realize why I had not seemed able up until then to embrace the show as fully as I had expected to.  The York has had to contend not just with the pandemic, but with a subsequent water main break that chased them out of their longtime subterranean home in  St. Peter‘s Church at CitiCorp. It makes sense they would want a show delivered full of smiles. Maybe Irving Berlin himself would have approved the rarely relenting upbeat tone of the evening, but his music seems hardy enough to withstand a more temperamentally varied approach.

Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood
York at The Theatre at St. Jeans through October 16
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
 Book by Barry Kleinbort 
Music Direction by David Hancock Turner
 Conceived, directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner
Cast: Jeremy Benton,Darien Crago, Kaitlyn Davidson,Danny Gardner, Darrell T. Joe, Melinda Porto, (Understudies: Corrine Munsch, Sean Quinn)


Blue Skies (The Jazz Singer, 1927) The Band
Let Yourself Go (Follow the Fleet, 1936)Kaitlyn Davidson, Danny Gardner, Darien Crago, Darrell T. Joe, and Jeremy Benton
Reaching for the Moon (Reaching for the Moon, 1930)Melinda Porto
I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket (Follow the Fleet, 1936)Darrell T. Joe
Isn’t This a Lovely Day? (Top Hat, 1935)Darien Crago
Cheek to Cheek (Top Hat, 1935) Kaitlyn Davidson and Jeremy Benton
The Piccolino (Top Hat, 1935) Darrell T. Joe and Darien Crago
Now It Can Be Told (Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1938)Melinda Porto
My Walking Stick (Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1938)Danny Gardner and Jeremy Benton
Change Partners (Carefree, 1938)Darrell T. Joe
The Yam (Carefree, 1938)The Company
When Winter Comes (Second Fiddle, 1939)The Band
I Poured My Heart Into a Song (Second Fiddle, 1939) Darrell T. Joe, Jeremy Benton, Kaitlyn Davidson, and Darien Crago
Back to Back (Second Fiddle, 1939)Danny Gardner, Melinda Porto, and Company
I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For (Holiday Inn, 1942)Jeremy Bento
Be Careful, It’s My Heart (Holiday Inn, 1942)Kaitlyn Davidson
You Keep Coming Back Like Aa Song (Blue Skies, 1946)Darien Crago and Darrell T. Joe
Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep) (White Christmas, 1954)Danny Gardner and Melinda Porto
The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing (White Christmas, 1954)Jeremy Benton, Darien Crago, and Company
Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me (White Christmas, 1954)Kaitlyn Davidson
Drum Crazy (Easter Parade, 1948)Darrell T. Joe, Jeremy Benton, and Danny Gardner
Better Luck Next Time (Easter Parade, 1948)Melinda Porto
I Used to Play It by Ear (1965)Kaitlyn Davidson, Danny Gardner, and Company
Let’s Face the Music and Dance (Follow the Fleet, 1936)The Company

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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