The title song to Phoenix Theatre’s new musical production, Love Makes The World Go ‘Round, was actually written by composer Bob Merrill for a 1961 show called Carnival! This new production has nothing to do with that earlier show, but it has everything to do with Bob Merrill.
Like Phoenix Theatre’s previous show, ‘S Wonderful which showcased the music of the Gershwins, Love Makes The World Go ‘Round is a musical salute or a celebration, if you will, of the work of Bob Merrill, a man described as someone who wrote songs for the ordinary guy. Interestingly enough, Merrill, we learn, could neither read nor write music. Like Broadway composer Leslie Bricusse who, for the same reason, composes his melodies on a child’s penny whistle, Merrill composed his songs on a child’s toy xylophone.
Unlike ‘S Wonderful, which possessed a series of vignettes each containing an arc of a story, Love Makes The World Go ‘Round has a setting and four performers, but no story arc. On an evening in a bar in Manhattan – a tremendous set design by Robert Kovach; it’s all wood panels and plush red padding – three women gather around a piano and flirt with the piano player. They tell stories of their lives, principally their current status, while singing songs around the piano. There’s no one else in the bar, no waiters, no other customers, and the musical theme of the evening is obviously a Bob Merrill Night.
The three ladies are perfectly cast for their type. Patti Davis Suarez is the acerbic Irene, the kind of woman who probably feels she has seen it all, particularly when it comes to men. It’s the kind of role you can imagine Elaine Stritch playing in her best Ladies Who Lunch mode, and Patti delivers the barbs with faultless timing.
Jeannie Shubitz is Anna, theNew York attorney who heads for the bar after work to try and forget her marital problems. Anna wants to be alone and only reluctantly joins the others around the piano after much persuasion. Jeannie both sings and dances well. Even the slightest of leg or arm movement expresses rhythm.
Then there’s Allison Houston supplying much of the comic relief as the innocent Natalie, a woman on the verge of marriage to a member of the infamous Gambino family. She’s endearingly clueless and plays it so. When the name Liberace is raised, Natalie has no knowledge. “He’s like Lady Gaga,” one of the other ladies tells her, “Only dead.” During the song If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake, Natalie declares, “I know that one,” then adds, “Sesame Street, right?” It’s funny, and the audience laughs at the humor, but it’s TV sitcom funny. In real life, a woman like Irene would have no time for her, and the educated Anna would only tolerate her as a client, not as someone to share a whole evening with seated around the piano.
And finally there’s the piano player himself. Brad Ellis is a hugely talented musician who makes the art of piano playing appear so easy you might start to think it’s something anyone can do. As someone seated near me amusingly stated in a loud whisper, “He’s not even looking at the keys!” In the show, Brad is called Henry, a character from one of Bob Merrill’s past musicals, Henry, Sweet Henry, and it’s his effortless playing and good-natured banter that warms both the audience and the three ladies to his piano. Brad enters the stage at the beginning before the lights dim and talks directly to the audience. “Come in, come in,” he tells audience members still searching for their seats. “For those who are worried,” he adds, “This is not the real show.” Brad neither looks nor dresses like any Manhattan barroom piano player I’ve ever seen. He’s so casual that he appears like someone who’s turned up for a rehearsal before costumes have been discussed. But there’s no faulting his playing.
Like Phoenix Theatre’s previous musical salute to the Gershwins, Love Makes The World Go ‘Round is not great theatre, or particularly memorable. In the way the three ladies may eventually stagger out of the bar and wonder the next morning what it was they did the night before, you may find yourself at odds the next morning trying to remember what happened during the show. It’s fun while you watch but fades once it’s over. However, if the show does anything, it shines a light on Bob Merrill. Who realized that the man who wrote the score to Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl also wrote hits for Guy Mitchell – My Truly, Truly Fair – and Rosemary Clooney – Mambo Italiano – as well as other sing-a-longs such as How Much Is That Doggy in the Window? He had a knack for catchy hooks, and the show helps you appreciate the clever lyrics. Plus, the moment when the ladies perform an encore with all three playing a xylophone in honor of Bob Merrill’s style of composing is priceless.
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