Me and Mr. B. = Anita Gillette and Irving Berlin

Young Anita Gillette was playing “a nymphomaniac coed” in Lee Adams/Charles Strouse’s  All American at The Winter Garden Theatre when Irving Berlin started to visit matinees from his upstairs office . The icon was then writing Mr. President, his first show in 11 years. A casting sheet for the new production described the president’s daughter as “an Anita Gillette type.” Her agent naturally suggested the actress herself. Cast in the role, she began a long, warm relationship with Berlin.

As cohesively shaped and directed by Barry Kleinbort who has a talent for helping artists sound like themselves, Me and Mr. B. is both an intimate glimpse into friendship between Gillette and Berlin and a cavalcade of the songwriter’s oeuvre.  The buzzing line in front of Birdland made passersby think they were giving something away.

David L. Harris and Anita Gillette

Gillette exudes warmth. She unconditionally throws herself into every number not just singing, but playing a part.  The artist appears rambunctious, blithe, piquant, and moving. We feel-with her. Vocals have improved since I attended the last fine presentation. A long back trill enhances. Power seem strengthened.

I wake up every morning with a smile on my face/Everything in its place as it should be… bubbles Gillette with infectious pleasure. (tandem No Strings”/”The Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night”.) Tension leaves the room in collective exhale. “Bring it on!” she declares at its finish. “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” and a terrific duet of “Blue Skies” (written by Johnny Long in the 40’s) with MD/pianist Paul Greenwood follow, both exemplary of the writer’s philosophy.

Israel Beilin (Irving Berlin) arrived from Russia at the age of five, moving into Lower East Side poverty. He was a newspaper boy at eight and singing in saloons by 14. Berlin authored an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films without ever learning to read or write music. “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.” (Jerome Kern)

“Mr. B.’s music has always been a part of my life.” Gillette’s mother and three redheaded sisters would gather around Aunt Vivi’s piano and sing. She imitates each, distinctively performing a line from that person’s favorite composition. Three are familiar. The fourth, “If You Don’t Like My Peaches” stop shaking my tree… is not. Feet firmly planted, she appears plucky and impatient.

Anita Gillette and Ritt Henn

“The Secret Service,” (sung by first daughter Leslie Henderson in Mr. President) is flat out adorable; frustration palpable. Years drop away. Gillette shares anecdotes about Nanette Fabray, choreographer Peter Genero, and “the presidential” Robert Ryan. Berlin, she notes, could make the most powerful people seem human. “It Gets Lonely in The White House” is a pensive, touching soliloquy.

“Mr. B. was so funny, such a joy to work with.” Out of town in Boston, one critic’s review was titled, “Knee Deep Amongst the Corn.” Berlin said he wasn’t going to read the papers and the company was warned not to bring up what had been written. As a result, they were all uncomfortably quiet crossing Boston Common with the show’s creator next morning. “Did anybody ELSE read the reviews?!” he finally exclaimed.

Berlin’s good right arm Hilda Schneider, better known as The Berlin Wall, started calling Gillette when Mr. B. needed cheering up. He showed her his paintings “not his etchings,” They told each other jokes, compared notes about their childhoods (telling) and talked about mutual regard for fishing. Sweet, wry stories.

An interpretation of “Lazy,” purportedly an attribute of Gillette’s, finds her stretching like a cat. Lyrics emerge slow as syrup. Her head tilts, she shrugs. Arms extend out as she sways and breathes into it. Do I see dragon flies rippling the water? Turtles? Dappled sun? Gillette’s head drops. She emits a whispered snore. Watching her is half the delight of this number. Piano is lovely.

Penny Fuller and Dan Gross; Anita Gilette and Penny Fuller

Vivacious Sin Twister Penny Fuller joins Gillette for their version of “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to The Devil.” The jaunty rag comes from a duet show whose title is a take-off on twin sisters. Gillette and Fuller share a stage with affection, style, and exuberance.

“Stay Down Here Where You Belong”, a surprising anti-war song was pulled from circulation when the country Berlin loved committed to fighting and disinterred in the 60s by Tiny Tim just in time to be relevant to Vietnam…Breaking the hearts of mothers/Making butchers of brothers…he wrote.

Next comes the first of two highlights. Gillette and her band are joined by uber-talented guest David L. Harris who plays the slide trombone, with and without high-hat, like an old soul. “Mr. Monotony” was cut from three musicals before it finally saw the light in Jerome Robbin’s Broadway “just before Mr. B. died at 101.” The ever cool Ritt Henn’s bass is deep and resonant. Dan Gross’s brushes circle as if skating. Harris exhibits attitude, finesse and control, at last spiraling down like a small winged creature. Gillette’s vocal oozes and ahs.

The second highlight is “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (my cheeks hurt from grinning long before we get here) which begins a slow New Orleans-like stroll, then swells. Henn and Gross beam at each other. Gillette and Harris irresistibly connect. It’s jubilant. “Mr. B. lived long enough to see this song enter public domain-though he plead for an extension.”

Here we have the only expendable number, a medley of dance-referencing songs that’s too long and exhausting in cabaret format. Should the show reach a concert stage with intermission, Gillette and Kornberg might revive it.

“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” sounds like an anthem tonight. Gillette may be referencing Berlin’s creative tenacity, her seemingly indomitable, multi-talented self, or our sad world at the moment. An a capella “God Bless America” is powerful and tender. There’s a pause, then the audience erupts…in prolonged applause. Brava.

Vocal back-up provided by the entire band adds gusto and texture.

Photos by Steve Friedman
Cover: Paul Greenwood and Anita Gillette

Me and Mr. B.
Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Anita Gillette
Special Guest Penny Fuller
Director-Barry Kleinbort
Musical Director/Piano-Paul Greenwood
Bass-Ritt Henn; Drums-Dan Gross
Special Guest Trombone: David L. Harris
Birdland  March 25, 2018
315 West 44th Street
Birdland’s Venue Calendar

About Alix Cohen (1287 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.