By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Nov 07, 2016 at 3:56 PM

There was no James Brown nor Sam Cooke nor Lou Rawls nor Sam and Dave, but the musical that hit the Stackner Cabaret Sunday night is the greatest tribute to soul music you may ever see on a Milwaukee stage.

This one, "I Love a Piano," was the loving tribute to Irving Berlin, who it may be argued captured the soul of America better than anyone who ever wrote a song.

He was a man who started out not knowing a single word of English but, through 1,500 songs, learned how to put words together, set them to simple music and in this way created a musical canon that both reflected and relieved the world around him.

In the midst of a devastated America coming out of a stock market crash, a worn man sits at his piano, and we hear both the plaintive and hopeful lyrics of the classic, "Blue Skies" ...

"Blue skies, shining on me
Nothing but blue skies, do I see.

Bluebirds, singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds, from now on."

A fearful America with war at the doorstep and millions of young men being sent to places we’d never heard of before. Berlin understood the pains and the fears – and gave America a chance to smile and laugh in the face of the impending dangers ...

"Oh how I hate to get up in the morning
Oh, how I’d love to remain in bed

For the hardest blow of all
Is to hear the bugler’s call.
Someday I’m going to murder the bugler
Someday they’re going to find him dead.
I’ll amputate his reveille
And step upon it heavily
And spend the rest of my life in bed."

And after America smiled and chuckled, Berlin sent us the musical picture of the soldier boy, alone on a field far away ...

"Out on a hike all day my dear,
Part of the Army grind

Weary and long the way my dear
But really, I don’t mind.
I’m getting tired so I can sleep.
I want to sleep so I can dream.
I want to dream so I can be with  you.
I’ve got your picture by my bed
T’will soon be placed beneath my head.
To keep me company the whole night through"

That was the Irving Berlin who continued, year after year and time after time, to create music that truly became the soundtrack to the American life.

A quartet of splendid actors/musicians/singers took on a variety of roles in this show, directed with loving affection of JC Clementz. The four worked seamlessly in concert and also each had special moments that touched the heart.

Kelley Faulkner and Steve Watts rehearse" Cheek to Cheek."

Jane Labanz is Eileen, a perky and fluffy character who sings and dances with a dainty precision. Yet she finds a depth of sorrow when she sings "What’ll I Do," the heartrending ballad of a woman left behind and wondering giving voice to her fears about her soldier boy.

Eric Shorey is George, the male comic of the group who sings and dances like Puck on steroids. But he gathers us in a warm and sentimental embrace as, dressed like a soldier, he sings the familiar "White Christmas" with a meaning rarely seen in this song too often passed over as a holiday carol. Shorey finds the yearning in the song that resonates so deeply with anyone who has spent Christmas alone.

Steve Watts is a big man with a masterful touch on the piano and a voice that carries with it the husk of a man who knows how important words are and what they really mean. His delivery of "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" just about brought me to tears as the ultimate song of optimism and hope in the face of the most dire of moments.

And finally, there is Kelley Faulkner who is an Ethel Merman with sex appeal. This show is right in her wheelhouse, and she doesn’t let a moment go by without latching on to the pathway of song and dance.

In a ballroom in the '40s, she is in a dance contest with George, who is draped over her shoulder as they try to become the longest lasting dancers on the floor. Clutching him to her, she sings the crushing "Say It Isn’t So," the hope against hope plea of a woman on uncertain terms with her man.

Clementz, with music director Dan Kazemi and choreographer James Zager, has crafted a spirited evening that climbs the walls of the ultimate in patriotism and plunges into the depths of loneliness.

It is the legacy of Irving Berlin, and the Stackner Cabaret is home to a holiday gift for everyone who gets a chance to see this show.

"I Love a Piano" runs through Jan. 15 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Production credits: Director, JC Clementz; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Choreographer, James Zager; Scenic Designer, William Boles; Costume Designer, Sally Dolembo; Lighting Designer, Aimee Hanyzewski; Sound Designer, Megan Henninger, Stage Manager, Kaitlin Kitzmiller.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.