One can always depend on twin brothers Peter and Will Anderson to provide delightful music, and this summer’s “Songbook Summit” program (August 7-September 2) has gotten off to a great start with an entertaining and informative salute to Irving Berlin (August 7-12).
The tributes to leading composers are being held at Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater. The schedule after the Berlin show is as follows: Jerome Kern (August 14-19); Hoagy Carmichael (August 21-26), Jimmy Van Heusen (August 28-September 2).
I attended the opening of the Berlin show and found it a complete charmer. In addition to the opportunity to enjoy the music, it is also like taking a class in the life and art of one of America’s greatest songwriters. Berlin lived to 101 and Will Anderson’s comments detailing highlights are punctuated with projections of illustrative clips, including shots of how Berlin’s songs were used. There is a clip of Berlin signing “God Bless America” on the Ed Sullivan show. One sees clips with such stars as Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and, of course, Bing Crosby, whose recordings of “White Christmas” sold millions. As Will amusingly notes, Berlin was the best Jewish composer ever to write a Christmas song. There’s also a song clip of “I Like Ike,” which Berlin wrote for Eisenhower. Particularly amusing is a shot from “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” with Peter Boyle, as the monster in Mel Brook’s film “Young Frankenstein,” croaking out the words in a song and dance number.
All of this is a plus that makes the show extra rewarding, but the heart of the program is the musical skill of the Andersons, who breathe fresh life into the numbers with their instrumental skills. Peter is a whiz on tenor sax, soprano sax and clarinet. Will excels on alto sax, clarinet and flute. There is also singer Molly Ryan, who impressively contributes the vocals for such numbers as “Blue Skies,” “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Always.” The Andersons have also assembled an excellent band that includes Tardo Hammer and Steve Ash taking turns at the piano, with Clovis Nicolas on acoustic bass and Philip Steward on drums.
Berlin’s treasure trove of songs is phenomenal, and as Will points out, they are geared to the public at large in comparison with Cole Porter’s numbers, with lyrics geared to the more sophisticated. Berlin wrote both music and lyrics, and he never had musical training. He liked to express his appreciation for the life he built in America after being brought here as a child. His accomplishments deserve special attention for what immigrants can achieve in this era of an Administration that is warring against immigration.
Among the other numbers offered is “I Can Do Better,” sung argumentatively by Ryan with both Peter and Will getting into the act. Throughout the program the brothers project an enviable unity in their playing, but also take turns at magical riffs on the various Berlin songs. Will makes a point of crediting Peter for the arrangements.
If you want a good time, the Anderson brothers are fun to see and hear, and based on past experience with their other performances, as well as the Berlin one, I can also recommend exploration of the other tributes in the “Songbook Summer” series. At the Symphony Space Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater, Broadway at 95th Street. Phone: 212-864-5400. Reviewed August 8, 2018.