Monday, February 28, 2011

Frigid ’11: My Pal, Izzy

Though his roots were humble, young Russian-Jewish immigrant Israel Baline would eventually represent the American experience through music better than nearly any other songwriter, present, past, or future. Of course, the man now remembered as Irving Berlin for his enduring classics like “God Bless America,” “Blue Skies,” and “White Christmas” had to start somewhere. In the persona of Rebecca Rosenstein, a not-quite star of Vaudeville and supposed neighborhood acquaintance of the prodigious popular composer, Melanie Gall fashions a cabaret-style memory play out of Berlin’s rarely performed early Tin Pan Alley songbook in My Pal, Izzy: the Early Life and Music of Irving Berlin, which is currently running as part of the 2011 Frigid Festival, featuring thirty independents productions, each no longer than an hour.

Of course, there is a reason why Berlin’s pre-“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” songs are so rarely performed. Primarily, it is a function of changing tastes. Berlin started out trying to give the people what they wanted, succeeding more than most. However, even Gall in the guise of Rosenstein apologizes to an extent for his first published work of juvenilia, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” Still, you have certainly heard worse.

True to the era, many of Gall’s selections are more or less novelty songs, but that does not mean they are not interesting as musical ornaments of an era gone by. Gall seems to understand this, performing them straight, but adding considerable dramatic flair where she can. She channels her inner Mae West for “If You Don’t Want These Peaches” (you know about “peaches,” right?) and enjoys the political incorrectness (circa 1909) of “My Wife’s Gone to the Country.”

Though Gall’s renditions are often somewhat operatic (not surprisingly, given her background), it is frankly in keeping with the expectations of early 1900’s music hall audiences. In fact, she finds real depth in “When I Lost You” and delivers quite a rousing closer in “That Dying Rag,” suggesting at least two of Berlin’s earliest might potentially deserve a revival apart from the context of a tribute show like Izzy. She is ably accompanied by John Murphy, who is unfortunately stuck with a keyboard (it obviously clashes with the 1916 vibe, but the Kraine is a small space, so there’s probably no way around it).

Izzy is a well-conceived exploration of the Great American Songbook, staking out some unclaimed musical territory that works far better than one might expect. Indeed, it would be fascinating to hear her recast some of these tunes with contemporary arrangements sometime in the future. Recommended for lovers and students of American song, Izzy runs again this coming Wednesday (3/2), Thursday (3/3), and Saturday (3/5) at the Kraine Theater in New York’s East Village, not too far from Berlin’s boyhood Lower Eastside neighborhood.

(Photo: Karen Young)