Milwaukee Rep’s I LOVE A PIANO Takes Theatergoing to New Heights

Highly Recommended

Reviewed by: Matthew Perta

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

One of my regrets in life, believe it or not, is that I never learned to play the piano.  And I never felt it more than I did after I experienced the phenomenal I Love A Piano, a rousing celebration of 50 hit songs by iconic American songwriter Irving Berlin that opened Nov. 4 in the Stackner Cabaret of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in downtown Milwaukee.  

The plot of I Love A Piano is simple: a piano with one sour note passes from owner to owner,taking the audience on an exhilarating retelling of American history through the memorable songs of Berlin.  I Love A Piano begins in the Ragtime era of the early 1900s, and then starts to swing through the Roaring ‘20s, heads into the lean times of the Great Depression, turns patriotic when America goes to war, and finally turns part-brassy and part-wholesome during the post war years of the late ‘40s and fabulous ‘50s.

It’s obvious from the start that I Love A Piano gives its cast of four a vigorous workout that includes acting, singing, dancing and piano playing within the course of two hours.  Reaching their zenith as stage performers are Rep favorite Kelley Faulkner (“Ginger”), Steve Watts (“Alex”), who has multiple regional and international credits on his resume, Jane LaBanz (“Eileen”) who has appeared on Broadway and in national tours, and Eric Shorey (“George”) making his Rep debut.  Faulkner is mesmerizing as a ‘40s-era dance marathon participant with her rendition of “Say It Isn’t So”, as is LaBanz, who delivers a moving interpretation of “Suppertime,” sung to the memory of a spouse who went to war and never returned.  Shorey brings down the house – in drag – as part of a trio of women singers not unlike the Andrews Sisters; and Faulkner and LaBanz prove to be an hilarious team as divas competing for the lead role in “Annie Get Your Gun” in postwar America.

Theatergoers know amazing things can be achieved in theater, but I Love A Piano takes what we know to be true and soars to new heights, thanks to the snappy direction of JC Clementz and high-stepping choreography of James Zager.  During the course of show the actors dress one another right on stage, and the action moves quickly, going from a clever tribute to silent films of the ‘20s, to the chic glamour of the Rogers-Astaire films of depression-scarred America of the 1930s, to the dance marathon craze of the early 40s and right into the call to serve one’s country at the onset of World War II.

I Love A Piano is four-star entertainment, with a super-talented quartet of actors that sings, dances, and acts and tickles the ivories with all its heart and soul.  Irving Berlin himself would be proud of this spirited tribute to his classic songs.

I Love A Piano plays in the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret through Jan. 15, but don’t delay in getting tickets because they may go fast once word spreads about this show.  Tickets can be purchased at www.milwaukeerep.com, by phone at (414) 224-9490, or by visiting the Rep’s box office in person at 108 E. Wells St. in the heart of downtown Milwaukee.