There are many reasons to wish Irving Berlin were still with us. But as I watched Anita Gillette perform her show titled “Me and Mr. B,” I couldn’t help thinking how much he would have enjoyed this warm, lively and fun-filled tribute to his great talent channeled so effectively by Gillette, who had a long-friendship with Berlin and talked about it between the numbers she did in her new show at Birdland last night (March 25).
Gillette repeats her performance tonight at 7 p.m.
What comes through so vibrantly is Gillette’s show biz experience. She is an actress as well as a superb singer with a long list of Broadway. television and film credits, and she displays a naturalness with her audience (no doubt backed by intense preparation), so that her performance of an hour and a half seems like an intimate party. If she happens to forget the order of a song, it is of no consequence, as Paul Greenwood, her expert pianist and music director, can cue her while she makes the most of the informality she projects.
Directed by Barry Kleinbort, this is a thoroughly pro affair, exemplified by the smoothness of Gillette’s integration with Greenwood, Ritt Henn on bass, and Dan Gross on drums. As a special attraction and one of the show’s highlights, David L. Harris on trombone teamed with Gillette on superb renditions of “Mr. Monotony” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The combination was ultra smooth and musically enticing.
Gillette pointed out that Berlin wrote 1,499 songs. How to choose? She did an excellent job picking out numbers reflecting the variety in his work. Her opening combination of “No Strings” and “The Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night” set the tone. She did an exotic interpretation of “Blue Skies,” with the band joining in vocally.
She can easily switch to the amusing, saucy “If You Don’t Like My Peaches” and finds hilarity in being made nervous by “The Secret Service.” Gillette appeared on Broadway in Berlin’s “Mr. President,” from which she sang “It Gets Lonely in the White House.” Another of her choices, “They Say It’s Wonderful,” was sung with delicacy and charm.
Gillette has often teamed with Penny Fuller, whom she summoned to the stage to join her in a rousing “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil.” Fuller is a superb actress-singer and they are always fun together.
Gillette evoked a very romantic feeling with “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and she projected Berlin’s ray of hope in her encore number “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.” Finally, she referenced Berlin’s place in the lore of our country by singing his “God Bless America.”
In addition to her excellent voice and deeply felt interpretations of the Berlin songs, she provided anecdotes about their friendly meetings, and how Berlin’s secretary would summon her saying that Berlin is longing to talk with her. It is easy to imagine how Gillette, with her effervescent personality, sense of humor and knowledge of the Broadway scene would have amused him.
What comes across so entertainingly in “Me and Mr. B.” is the warmth and reference she feels for his repertoire. There is not a smidgen of exploitation in her honoring him. The sincerity comes through captivatingly, and it is a thorough delight to take this trip down memory lane with the ultra-accomplished, very likable Gillette. At Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, Phone: 212-581-3080. Reviewed March 26, 2018.