Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: 'With a Song in My Heart'

The new musical revue from Laugh Out Loud Theatre Company is a pleasant pastiche of tunes from the '20s, '30s and '40s. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from the Red Room at Society Hill Playhouse.

Review: 'With a Song in My Heart'

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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.

By Howard Shapiro

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.

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, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,
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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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