Photo Credit: Bob Johnson
Anita Gillette captivated her audience at the new Birdland Theater, with her charm, wit, and personal stories of working with Irving Berlin in “Me and Mister B”, a loving, entertaining, and educational stroll down memory lane with a great singing actress, about one of musical theater’s greatest composers.
Irving Berlin is something of a mythical character to many people of a younger generation, and sitting in the theater as Anita Gillette recounted stories of her working with the composer himself was awe-inspiring and revelatory. Equally revelatory was her performance of these great songs, at least one of which (Secret Service) was written for her.
Opening with an arrangement of Fancy Free and I Got The Sun In The Morning, and segueing into Let Me Sing and I’m Happy, set the stage for an enjoyable, lighthearted evening, which continued with If You Don’t Want My Peaches. And here’s where the revelation set in. In my other life (as a voice teacher), I repeatedly attempt to explain the subtly of an Irving Berlin lyric to said younger generation, the sensibility of the time, and the meaning of the lyrics, which are whole-heartedly different when viewed through the lens of that time, and so often lost on the YouTube generation. But now, here in the room, was the living embodiment of this sensibility, living the lyric to it’s fullest, with just the right amount of irony, pathos, and humor. Yes, Ms. Gillette took us all to school, and in the best of all possible ways. And, to hear her perform her signature song (Secret Service) was musical theater magic.
Director Barry Kleinbort and Music Director Paul Greenwood, deserve ample credit for crafting an evening delicately balanced between history lesson and great entertainment. And, with a venerated pro like Gillette it is indeed an evening of great entertainment. The evening featured some of Irving Berlin’s greatest songs, including They Say It’s Wonderful, and Blue Skies, and Mr. Monotony, and Alexander’s Rag Time Band (with Trombonist David L. Harris), as well as Pack Up Your Sins (with guest singer Penny Fuller). And, the stories of her long-standing relationship with “Mr. B” is solely worth the price of admission.
The pièce des résistance, however, was her moving rendition of Lonely in The White House, which strangely took on a whole new meaning, given the current political context, and an astonishing encore pairing of It’s a Lovely Day and God Bless America, which served to remind this listener that the current political context is just that, current, and not everlasting, as are the words and music of Irving Berlin.
Anita Gillette Performing The Secret Service, From Mr. President, by Irving Berlin.