Review: 'With a Song in My Heart'

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

The new musical revue With a Song in My Heart actually has more than 25 of them — more than 40 if you count the two medleys that open its two halves. It’s a pastiche of songs that feels like cruise ship after-dinner entertainment: loosely defined, corny and cute and smiley all the way.

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The cast of "With a Song in My Heart," clockwise from left: Elisa Matthews, John D. Smitherman, Nora Fitzgerald, Dan Larrinaga, Rachel Lancaster and Rita Markova.

Here, though, it’s performed in Society Hill Playhouse’s Red Room and not on the sea — although a show about a cruise, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, lends some of its best songs to the second half along with pieces from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and a tribute to old operettas. (Sigmund Romberg, anyone?)

The songs go by at a clip, although at two acts the show stretches a bit  thin. It’s pleasant, though, and sung by five talented folks accompanied by dancer Rachel Lancaster, who nicely performs the stylized sort-of ballet that TV variety shows occasionally featured in the ‘60s when they attempted to be artsy for a few minutes.

Those interludes make sense for With a Song in My Heart, which itself features throwbacks: songs from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s — standards like “September Song” (by Kurt Weill) to show tunes like “’S Wonderful” (George Gershwin) to American songbook numbers like “Stardust” (Hoagy Carmichael).

With a Song in My Heart is directed by John D. Smitherman, who runs the Laugh Out Loud Theatre Company, a professional group fairly new to the stage scene here. Smitherman, a tenor with a showy force, also sings in the troupe, along with Dan Larrinaga (who just did come off a ship from the Holland America line as an entertainmer), the spunky Nora Fitzgerald (who also choreographed), and Elisa Matthews and Rita Markova, both accomplished in musicals on professional area stages.

The cast changes formal wear between the revue’s two halves, and  all are charming and refreshingly unamplified. Backing them on piano is music director Mark Yurkanin and on violin, Cheryl Reifsteck. Some orchestrations are better than others — a few seem to momentarily get in the way of the singers — and the music Reifsteck plays in the first half is heavy with goo on the high-pitched E-string, and includes an occasional violin sound-effect (try bluebirds chirping over the rainbow in you know what song). The overkill is like serving up schmaltz, then pushing your face in it.

Still, there’s no reason to be grouchy. The theater company’s mission statement says it aims to make anyone “leave with a lighter heart and a smile on their face.” It’s almost impossible not to do that with a lot of Cole Porter songs, and better here for being nicely performed. Mission accomplished.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

With a Song in My Heart: Presented by Laugh Out Loud Theatre Company at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St., through June 17. Tickets: $25-$30. Information: 941-544-0164 or  www.jdsentertainments.com.

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