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REVIEW: The Tap’s the Thing in Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue 1921 (Theatre of the Ridiculous and Absurd)

A 1921 advertisement for the original Music Box Revue.

There’s a saying in show business that every show must have a pressing reason to exist. Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue 1921‘s reason is clearly to be a love note to one of America’s most beloved songwriters.

The Ives Auditorium.

The origins of Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue series, which ran in different incarnations from 1921-1925, are intimately wrapped up with its namesake theatre. Broadway producer Sam H. Harris promised Irving Berlin that he would build a lavish new thousand-odd-seat Broadway theatre perfectly suited to the composer’s music if Berlin would write a piece to open it. They spent about double the budgeted $500,000 on the Music Box, creating a venue that was described as uncommonly beautiful in an age of modernist architecture. The inaugural Music Box Revue outdid the theatre’s budget overrun with operating costs three times as large as the average Broadway show.

Like its model, Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue 1921 also inaugurates (more or less) a new theatre: the brand-new Ives Auditorium at the Masonic Heritage Center in Bloomington, MN. This 440-seat theatre is considerably more intimate venue than the NYC Music Box and the stagings are scaled down commensurately. Director Doug Dally keeps the stagings simple; much of the spectacle comes from the many and lavish painted backdrops used. These are of both visual and historic importance, being drawn from surviving originals created for the 1921 show by Thomas Gibbs Moses, and from the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center’s own collection.

A set of costumes from the 1927 film The Midnight Sun, on which the revue’s “Legend of the Pearls” costumes are patterned. Photo from Bettmann/CORBIS.

Watching this revue is like opening a time capsule; even longtime Irving Berlin fans will likely discover a few songs that they didn’t know. The music and comedy sketches incorporate a lot of cornball humor that you don’t see very often on today’s stages. Zany musical and visual gags are given free reign, and the double entendres and euphemisms abound (see, for example, Daria Turner’s performance of “If You Don’t Want My Peaches”, a short song that generated a ton of chuckles, or “The Motive”, a sketch that helped make Fanny Brice famous).

This incarnation of the Music Box Revue is thankfully shorter than the original, which ran almost 3.5 hours on its opening night (Berlin made some cuts afterwards). While the deliveries are often uneven, the material has a welcome novelty to modern ears and eyes. Some opening night sound and lighting issues that the cast powered through will hopefully be resolved soon.

Of course Mr. Berlin has tossed off quite a lot of jungly stuff to weave in here and there as an accompaniment to the music. But he has written only one real song. It is called ‘Say It With Music’ and by February you will have heard it so often that you will gladly shoot at sunrise any one who so much as hums it in your music.

–Alexander Woolcott, New York Times, September 23, 1921, p. 24

Instrumental accompaniment is provided by a piano-trumpet-bass-and-drum quartet, under the direction of pianist Wei Pai. This quartet provided a reasonably direct and full sound from where it was tucked into one of the wings, although either greater variety of sound or larger cuts seem in order for the overly long overture.

The tap-dancing numbers are consistently appealing and one of the show’s strongest features, especially in the big production number “Fair Exchange”. By the time Act I comes to a close, you’ll probably be leafing ahead in the program to see when the Eight Little Notes dancers will next take the stage.

Although Berlin wrote many pieces of music for the 1921 show, critics zeroed in on one specific song for praise, “Say It With Music”. In this incarnation, it appears as a pleasing duet by Tim Kanaley and Brooke Wahlstrom before the Act I finale, and again as an ensemble piece to bring the curtain down. Whether or not you’d rather be kissed to a tune by Chopin or Liszt, that one’s a gem.

Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue 1921 runs through October 14 at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center in Bloomington, MN.

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.

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