“Watch Your Step” – Celebrate 100th Anniversary of Irving Berlin’s first Broadway musical
American Classics presents two special hundredth anniversary concert performances of Irving Berlin’s first Broadway show, Watch Your Step which premiered at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York on December 8, 1914. These are the only performances of the show in 2014. Bradford Conner and Benjamin Sears, producing directors of American Classics, have created a performing edition of the script, based on extant materials. Irving Berlin published a complete vocal score, unique for a Broadway show in 1914, and the score will be the star of the evening. In 2000 American Classics gave a rare revival of the show which received critical praise, “with delicious surprise after delicious surprise, American Classics delivered a classic in high style.”
Under the direction of David Frieze, with music director Bradford Conner. Steve Sussman presides at the piano, joined by Margaret Ulmer. The cast includes Caroline Musica and Ethan Sagin as Ernesta Hardacre and Joseph Lilyburn, both heirs to a two million dollar fortune to go to “the one of my relatives who has never been in love,” with the stipulation that that person must not fall in love after the reading of the will before 1:00am. Other heirs conspire to claim the fortune by tricking Ernesta and Joseph into falling in love with each other. Complications ensue as the two young people are thrown up against many allurements including an aging matinée idol, a vamp, and a popular Italian tenor at the Metropolitan Opera House. All ends happily as Ernesta and Joseph find each other after 1:00am, gaining both the fortune and true love.
The cast also includes Eric Bronner as Algy Cuffs, the matinee idol; Brian De Lorenzo and Stanley Wilson as the lawyers of the “Law Office de Danse,” Steele and Flint; Bradford Conner and Benjamin Sears as the scheming heirs, Strange and Hardacre; Cynthia Mork as Birdie O’Brien, the proprietress of a Dance Hall; Valerie Anastasio as vamp Stella Sparks; Davron S. Munroe as Spaghetini, the Italian Tenor; Stephanie Yoder as Estelle, an office girl; and Nathan Reich and Lauren Frick in supporting roles.
The original cast of Watch Your Step featured the popular husband-and-wife dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle. The Castles were hired for their dancing prowess and both script and score reflect that with references to the dances they made popular. The Act I finale, The Syncopated Walk, is a pointed allusion to their patented dance step, the Castle Walk. Vernon was the romantic lead, Joseph, though he regularly shifted from his on-stage character to being Vernon Castle when partnering his wife who appeared as “Mrs. Vernon Castle.” Also in the cast were Frank Tinney (a popular stage personality, played a variety of roles) Elizabeth Brice, Justine Johnstone, Elizabeth Murray, and Charles King, most of whom are forgotten by modern audiences.
The musical hit of the original production was Simple Melody, the first time Irving Berlin wrote a counterpoint song, pitting two tunes against each other. It regularly stopped the show and has remained popular since then. Of particular musical interest is Act II finale, the operatic parody Opera in Modern Time in which Berlin pits the Ghost of Verdi against the lovers of modern music who want to rag his Rigoletto. Along the way Berlin quotes not only Rigoletto, but also Verdi’s Aida, Gounod’s Faust, Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s La Bohème, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
There are only two performances of Watch Your Step, Friday, November 14, 2014 at 7:30 at the Follen Community Church, 755 Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington; and Sunday, November 16 at 3:00 at the Pickman Concert Hall of the Longy School of Music, 27 Garden Street, Cambridge. Tickets are $25/$20 for students and seniors.