REVIEWS: Watch Your Step

Watch Your Step Review June 12th, 2001
Reviewed by Martin Denton

Mel Miller’s eleventh Musicals Tonight production is at once his most ambitious and most invaluable production to date: the staged concert revival of the 1914 Irving Berlin show Watch Your Step is a veritable treasure trove for anyone interested in the American musical theatre. Miller has heroically located (and adapted) the libretto of this 87-year-old show, which turns out to be the handiwork of Harry B. Smith; Smith (1860-1936) was the most prolific writer in musical theatre history, with a career spanning its formative years (the heyday of Weber & Fields and Victor Herbert) though its early maturity in the late teens and '20s (collaborating with composers like Jerome Kern and Berlin).

I’ve never actually seen a Harry B. Smith musical; unless you’re well into your 60s, chances are you haven’t either, because they just don’t get done anymore. So Watch Your Step is spectacularly instructive: barely recognizable as a musical comedy, it’s much more akin to vaudeville, with its foolish but complicated plot literally set aside for long stretches in each act to accommodate a succession of "turns" tailored to the talents of its leading players. Lacking the integration of even a George M. Cohan show, Watch Your Step is jarringly foreign to contemporary audiences in ways that early Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers & Hart musicals are not: it’s like a light farce with songs and dances tossed in more or less at random. Watch Your Step is by no means ripe for full-scale revival, but it sure is fascinating to get a look at!

Even more arresting though, is the score. It’s the first complete one written by Irving Berlin, who was just 26 when he composed it. It’s a wondrous blend of operetta, early Tin Pan Alley brashness, and signature Berlin ragtime. A song like "Office Hours," which opens the show’s first "book" scene (set in a law office) registers as weird and ponderous today, with a chorus of clerks incongruously dictating love letters to a chorus of secretaries: you can feel Berlin’s unease with the form in the pretty but hackneyed melody and the stilted lyrics. But songs like "Lock Me In Your Harem," "I Gotta Go Back To Texas," and "Bird of Paradise" are delicious pastiche (though of course they weren’t in 1914): dazzling little comic riffs on some of our great-grandparents’ pop culture icons (the Egyptian sheik, cowboys, and Hawaiian hula girls, respectively).

And when Berlin gets to break out in joyous and natural syncopation -- in still-familiar tunes like "Simple Melody" and "Syncopated Walk," plus a tour de force called "Opera Medley" featuring rag parodies of Rigoletto, Aida, and others -- Watch Your Step catches fire. Verdi had been dead just thirteen years in 1914: here was upstart Berlin tweaking the highbrows with the most lowbrow of American music; what’s more, here he was, with the sophisticated jazzy counterpoint of "Simple Melody" and the sharp, brazen wit of "Opera Medley," beating them at their own game. What must this have felt like when it was so gloriously and explosively new? Watch Your Step gives us a hint.
What’s missing from this revival is the dancing: Watch Your Step was constructed as a vehicle for Vernon and Irene Castle, who were the most famous dance team of their era, responsible for introducing the Castle Walk and many other ballroom dances to America. Some of their material is recreated here in numbers like "Show Us How to Do the Fox Trot" and "I’m a Dancing Teacher Now". Limited choreography is necessarily all that’s possible in a concert production such as this; at least we get a sense of what the Castles might have been like.

Director/Choreographer Thomas Mills has staged the show with his usual efficiency and wit; and music director/arranger Mark Hartman is invaluable as ever on the piano. The cast of seventeen works hard and effectively; standouts are David Sabella, very funny (and in great voice) at the egotistical actor Algy; dynamic Jennifer Miller as the Irene Castle character Stella; and sweet-voiced Alison Walla as ingénue Ernesta Hardacre. Osborn Focht, Michael Dunn Litchfield, Justin Roller, and Matt Toronto offer up appealing four-part harmony in several numbers, including the very entertaining "I Gotta Go Back to Texas."

The World of Dance With Francis Mason
96.3FM WQXR June 16th, 2001
Reviewed by Francis Mason

Who said dance was in the doldrums in the summertime? When you can see Doug Varone giving a free demonstration at Purchase College about how he makes dances, when you can see Sean Curran’s company at the Joyce Theatre, when you can see a revival of the 1914 Irving Berlin musical called Watch Your Step at the downtown Y on east 14th Street, when you can see Gillian Murphy dance "The Rose Adagio" with ABT at the Met AND a new hit at the NYCBallet by Richard Tanner, there aren’t any doldrums! To talk about what you ought to see before they get away: Sean Curran’s dances at the Joyce Theatre all this weekend go out on a vigorous but lyrical wing. The Berlin Musical Watch Your Step, choreographed by Julie Kent’s first partner, the brilliant Thomas Mills, is at the y at 344 East 14th through June 24th. Doug Varone’s company is at Purchase College June 23rd. And that’s the story on The World of Dance. This is Francis Mason.

Music Springs From Berlin
The Village Voice July 3rd, 2001
Reviewed by Michael Feingold

Harry B. Smith, master hack of over 300 operetta scripts, left us innumerable dramaturgical problems, few of which matter today because the composers who animated them have mostly faded from our collective memory. But Smith was there at the pivotal moment when operetta became musical comedy, in 1914, providing a nonsensical plot and a cracker barrel’s worth of now decrepit topical jokes for a young composer-lyricist named Irving Berlin, fresh from a decade of success in Tin Pan Alley. Because the show starred a chic dance team, Vernon and Irene Castle, they titled it Watch Your Step -- though Berlin typically displayed his puckish attitude by making the title song a paean to streetcar conductors (and "the children that they bring up/on the nickel they forget to ring up").

The period’s loosely built, performer-driven shows tended to have their scores doctored by the stars’ pet songwriters. Berlin was powerful enough to modify but not transform this system; over its run, the show accrued a pile of additional Berlin songs. The result leaves restorers a plethora of riches, including, in a vaudeville-house sequence, parodies of all the era’s pop genres, plus a giant opera spoof that puts Gounod and Verdi hilariously through the ragtime mill. Under Mart Hartman’s snappy musical direction, the work’s concert staging by Musicals Tonight uses 22 of these Berlin gems, most virtually unknown. The performance, staged by Thomas Mills, is acceptable -- a step up from the organization’s usual just-getting-through-it-alive mode. And the songs -- spunky, sparkling, and sophisticatedly self-aware -- seem fresher and brasher than anything Broadway’s offered in the 87 years since they were first sung.

Watch Your Step in Concert
Back Stage July 27th, 2001
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Irving Berlin’s rarely staged 1914 musical comedy, Watch Your Step, has been given a delightful, foot-tapping concert revival by Musicals Tonight, unearthing a treasure trove of unfamiliar, syncopated songs. Stage director/choreographer Thomas Mills and music director Mark Hartman kept a cast of (mainly) young and vivacious players ragging and two-stepping with the best of them.

Harry B. Smith’s book had just enough storyline to lead into each of the 25 musical numbers. As adapted by Mel Miller, Watch Your Step is still funny after nearly 87 years since Vernon and Irene Castle premiered it. The plot revolves around a $2 million inheritance offered to any relative who has never been married, engaged, or in love. Two youngsters come forward, but temptation is placed before them. They fall in love with each other, but resist long enough to win the money.

The score, consisting mainly of specialty numbers, includes one famous song, "Play Me a Simple Melody," which was turned into an unforgettable three-part counterpoint for the surprise finale. The wittiest number, "Opera Medley," turned some of Verdi and Puccini’s most famous arias into ragtime.

The comic leads were played by vivacious Rebecca Spencer and irrepressible David Sabella, who had much fun with "Come to the Land of the Argentine" and "Lock Me in Your Harem," respectively. In the role created for Vernon Castle, diminutive bundle of energy Julian Brightman almost stole the show in his high flying, "I’m a Dancing Teacher Now." As his partner in the Irene Castle role, Jennifer Miller ably led the ensemble in "Show Us How to Fox Trot."

As the romantic leads, coloratura soprano Alison Walla and crooner Daniel Frank Kelley made a colorful musical contrast in their duets, "Lead Me to Love" and "I Hate You." Osborn Focht, Michael Dunn Litchfield, Justin Roller, and Mat Toronto impressed as the barbershop quartet.

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