The songs themselves are mainly much loved perennials, such as Cheek to cheek, Say it isn’t so, and Blue skies. Ross mentions Berlin’s canny use of ‘catalogue’ songs in film musicals such as Easter Parade, which brought new popularity to I love a piano, a perfect number for Ross, who certainly knows “a fine way to treat a Steinway”. His piano interludes, including a medley of such numbers as Remember, You’re just in love, and Let’s face the music and dance, are extremely beguiling. There is also a sprinkling of lesser-known material, such as the jaunty Ragtime violin, a comedy number called Cohen owes me ninety-seven dollars, and a touching ballad, I Can’t Remember, which Ross first heard from a vintage Gracie Fields recording!
Another song with a British connection is It’s a lovely day tomorrow – a hit in the Broadway musical, Louisiana Purchase (1940), which had great success in the UK when it was recorded by Vera Lynn as a morale-boosting number during the early days of World War Two. The neglected ‘Let’s go back to the waltz’, from Berlin’s last Broadway show, Mr President, introduces some of Berlin’s gorgeous waltzes. One of his greatest is Always, which prompts one of Ross’s amusing anecdotes – when Berlin played the song to George F. Kaufman, the noted writer and wit responded by pointing out that the word “always” implied a commitment that he found daunting. He suggested the lyrics instead state, “I’ll be loving you Thursday”.
Ross has great fun with the comedy number about a bashful lad with unsuspected romantic qualities, You’d be surprised, including a little-known second chorus (“I know he looks as slow as the Erie, but you don’t know the half of it, dearie”), and he brings effective passion and power to make a showstopper of Harlem on my mind, Berlin’s speculative evocation of the homesickness that the ex-patriate toast of Paris, Josephine Baker, might be feeling. The exquisite Change partners and Let me sing and I’m happy are two gems that come near to the climax of the evening, which ends appropriately with White Christmas. The show is a sterling tribute to a master song-writer, and it would be hard to find a finer interpreter of Irving Berlin’s words and music than Steve Ross.
- C’mon and hear: Steve Ross Sings and Plays Irving Berlin is at The Pheasantry, 152 King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW3 until Saturday 19 November 2011
- Reservations on 0845 602 7017