By: Paulanne Simmons
January 27, 2020: The opening scene of Falling Stars, a musical revue from the UK that will stream on Broadway On Demand beginning February, features the talented singer/actor Peter Polycarpou wandering into an antique shop on the East Finchley High Road and discovering an old, tattered songbook. When he decides to buy it, the proprietor (an offstage voice) demands outrageously high prices until he agrees to sing a number from the songbook.
When he is finished singing, the proprietor finally appears, dressed in a strapless black gown with numerous thigh high slits. She is, in fact, the equally talented Ann Triplett, and together she and Polycarpou set out on a musical journey through the forgotten and not so forgotten songs of the 1920s. As Polycarpou remarks, these songs have a certain “joie de vivre” that seems quite removed from the 21st century. What’s more, this “innocent sensuality” and “long-gone naiveté” flourished at a time that also saw the carnage of World War I and the tragic deaths of the Spanish Flu, something that might give us pause today.
The journey includes lots of information about the composers and lyricists of the period and, at the beginning, tantalizingly brief renditions of the songs. But at last, the duo gets down to their repertoire of songs from bygone days. The songs were written by such luminaries as Irving Berlin, Buddy De-Silva, Ray Henderson, Vincent Youmans, Carl Schraubstader, Arthur Freed and Meredith Wilson. A number of them were composed by Charlie Chaplin, whose silent films, Triplett tells us, “were never silent at all.” What makes these songs truly remarkable is that Chaplin could neither read nor notate music.
Some of the songs may have been forgotten, but they have extremely memorable titles: “When It’s Nighttime in Italy It’s Wednesday Over Here,” “You Know You Belong to Somebody Else So Why Don’t You Leave Me Alone” and “There’s Yes Yes in Your Eyes,” which has the admirable lyric “Your lips tell me no no, but there’s yes yes in your eyes.”
However, many of the songs are far from frivolous. There’s also “Roses of Picardy” sung by British soldiers after they’d left sweethearts in France or Flanders, the lyrics written by Frederick Weatherly after he’d fallen in love with a French widow; Irving Berlin’s Haunting “What’ll I Do?” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with lyrics we can all use these days: Smile, though your heart is aching/Smile, even though it’s breaking/When there are clouds in the sky/you’ll get by/If you smile through your fear and sorrow/Smile and maybe tomorrow/You’ll see the sun come shining through/for you.
Falling Stars, written and conceived by Peter Polycarpou, and directed and staged by Michael Strassen, was put together in three days, but it does not seem at all hurried. Set and costume designer Jean Grey has created the musty atmosphere of a London antique shop complete with an eclectic array of bric-a-brac, and dressed Triplett and Polycarpou in styles that should warm the heart of any music hall devotee. While lighting designer Andrew Exeter has flooded the shop with tones of sepia and burgundy.
Polycarpou and Triplett never miss a step or hit a false note, whether they’re speaking, singing, dancing or just clowning around. They seem to know each other as well as they know the music.
Whether you love history, enjoy good music or are just seeking great entertainment, in these times of pandemic, Falling Stars is just what the doctor ordered.
Photography: Paul Nicholas Dyke