The Belfry Theatre concluded its 40th anniversary season with a revival of Don Shipley’s 1976 musical review that premiered at the theatre forty years ago: Puttin’ on the Ritz (immortalized by Fred Astaire dancing in a top hat and tails) that features some 50 iconic songs and musical numbers composed by Irving Berlin. Directed by the renowned director of Pacific Opera and former Belfry artistic director Glynis Leyshon, who first revived the review in 1994, this production stars the exceptionally talented Lauren Bowler (from this season’s musical Chelsea Hotel), Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Katrina Reynolds, and John Ullyatt, and can be seen from April 12 to May 8, 2016.
Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline, 1888-1989, in Imperial Russia) came to New York at the age of five with his parents, escaping the pogroms of the tsarist regime.Starting with his first major international hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911, we went on to write hundreds of songs, many becoming major hits, before he turned thirty. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films, with his songs nominated eight times for Academy Awards.
Berlin’s “White Christmas” (1942) sold over 50 million copies, 17 million more than the next top selling single (Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”) and 32 million more than the top selling digital single (Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe”). At the age of 95, Berlin became the oldest person to have a single in the Billboard Hot 100 when German pop singer Taco charted (to Number 4) a synth-pop version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in 1983.
The review opens with Berlin’s early hits, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), “What’ll I Do?” (1924), “Blue Skies” (1926), and proceeds more or less chronologically with “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (1937), and war-time patriotic songs of army and navy, as well as “God Bless America” (1938), “Cheek To Cheek,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954), saving the top hats, tails and gowns for the finale and the company’s rendition of “Stepping Out,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1930).
Especially noteworthy were the voice and performance of the Salt-Spring-Island- native Lauren Bowler, who commands the viewer’s attention in both acts. Also impressive were the tap-dance numbers, the many props that added a comedic tone to the performances.
The Belfry Theatre resides in a former Baptist Church built between 1887 and 1892. April 4, 1971 was the final Sunday service in this building, and Emmanuel Baptist congregation moved to their new sanctuary on Cedar Hill Cross Road in Saanich. In 1974 Michael Stephen established the Springridge Cultural Centre to promote culture in the city and make use of the church’s vacant space. The building was renamed the Belfry in 1976, and the first professional theatre production was mounted in 1977: Puttin’ on the Ritz by the Belfry’s first artistic director, Don Shipley. The company bought the building in 1990, and embarked on a program of renovation and restoration which were completed in 2003. In 2001 the Belfry won Hallmark Society and Heritage Society of BC awards for the restoration of the exterior. In the past 40 years the Belfry has produced over 230 plays, including 158 Canadian plays, and more than 33 premieres.
John Ullyatt, Katrina Reynolds, Lauren Bowler, and Andrew MacDonald-Smith in
Puttin’ on the Ritz – The Music and Lyrics of Irving Berlin (2016)
Photos by Emily Cooper