On My Way to You
Laurie Beechman Theatre
April 21, 2022 – 7PM
By Sarah Downs
In her show On My Way to You, Ms. Berk serves up an eclectic list of songs, unified in their examination of the improbability of success, and the individuals who followed an unlikely path to personal and professional fulfillment.
Berk set the intimate tone right away, taking a less trodden path to the stage. She entered from the house, greeting the audience with her first song, the lovely “April Showers” made famous by Al Jolson. Images of the delicacy of violets in the sun to bright yellow daffodils moved from a soothing, introspective place to a more uplifted tone. Jolson, an exemplar of the self-made man, could not have been a more unlikely candidate for international stardom. From poor cantor’s son to Broadway star to making the very first talking picture, the World’s Greatest Entertainer (as he modestly referred to himself) definitely took a road less traveled.
So, what is it that guides someone from obscurity to success? How do these unique, self-made individuals maintain the confidence that they can – and they will – succeed? Whence this ambition, perseverance and clear sense of self? Fascinated by the idea of the unlikely ones, Berk has created a musical storyline that delves into the mystery. Whatever the recipe, we’ll have what they’re having.
In songs like “I Wish it So” and “Anyone Can Whistle” Berk sings the lyric tenderly but resists falling into a static state of wistfulness. Yes, the tone is winsome and a little dreamy, but Berk maintains a through line of confidence – highlighting a certain bravado and – yes – ambition. Life takes effort. Wishes and dreams are the wellspring, but success doesn’t happen by magic. Anyone can Whistle, but only if he tries. Tedd Firth offers lush support in the accompaniment. He has such a delicate touch on the piano, including lovey touches of what sounds like birdsong in “On My Way to You.” He plays in complete accord with Berk as singer, and together they are almost absorbed into the music.
And speaking of the improbable, Berk and her director Mark Nadler have found a way to include the gorgeous tenor aria “Di Rrigori Armato” from the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier in the lineup – successfully melding it into the cabaret’s through line. This is one of the most difficult arias in the repertoire. Berk sings this plaintive aria about the futility of resisting love in a reverent hush all the more emotional for its restraint. (If you want to see the “Di Rigorio Armato” in context, the Metropolitan Opera is doing a fabulous production of Der Rosenkavalier next season).
It’s choices like these that set a cabaret apart from its fellows. Allowing oneself to follow one’s heart musically, combining material you just love to sing, and finding a director who supports you in this endeavor, is the way to go. Berk precedes the aria with another great choice, the haunting love song, “With Every Breath I Take” from City of Angels. It’s tone of resignation and longing is a fitting preamble to the Strauss. The heart wants what the heart wants. The range of “With Every Breath I Take” is low alto, and in conjunction with the various ratcheted up the keys in a clever ‘duet’ of “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get your Gun,” (including a surprising high B natural), Berk ended up singing in several octaves in one show.
On My Way to You revives for a brief moment the spirits of Al Jolson, Ethel Merman, Barbara Cook and the wonderful Nancy Walker, who was such an incredible performer who yet is mostly unknown to modern audiences. As Hildy in the original cast of On the Town, and in movies in the 1940s, Walker left her mark with a combination of Brooklyn ‘charm’ and physical humor. There was and will never be anyone like her. Examining what makes an unlikely star stick honors the chutzpah of the individual. Navigating this territory takes the kinds of clear choices Director Nadler, Firth and Berk have made throughout. Working as one, they have crafted a performance that is poignant, fun and polished without feeling ‘staged.’
As for the stars that guide the stars? Some truths are ever present, whether it’s nerves or inspiration, self-doubt or ambition. Whatever century, the ‘how’ may change, but not the ‘why.’ So – what of the future? Well, if we are to take page from the Al Jolson’s book, it behooves us to remember “the best is yet to come.”