Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Lyrics & Music by Irving Berlin
Book by Hershey Felder
Introduction to My April 2017 Review of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin:
When I rate a production a “5 E,” I am saying by definition, “Loved it ... A classic ... would see it again.”
In January 2016, I first saw Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (regional premiere) and gave the show a resounding “5 E” review on both Talkin’ Broadway and Theatre Eddys. Last night, I eagerly returned to Berkeley Repertory Theatre to see again Hershey Felder perform his magical walk-through of the 20th Century via Irving Berlin’s vast song library and rich history of encountered personalities. If anything, Mr. Felder and his show has only gotten better in the past sixteen months.
The following is a slightly updated review from the original, all of which is still true – and even more true – for this production. Even the theatregoer who has seen the show in Mountain View, New York, or wherever should seriously consider yet another evening with the incredible Felder/Berlin duo.
With over 1500 published songs to consider (232 hitting Top 10 charts and 25 reaching Number One) ranging from universal classics such as “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Easter Parade,” and even “God Bless America,” how can anyone successfully collapse Irving Berlin’s 101 years of life into just ninety minutes? Anyone cannot; but for the man who has traveled the globe doing the same for the likes of Gershwin, Chopin, Bernstein, and Beethoven, winnowing down Berlin’s life into a fascinating kaleidoscope of stories, characters, and of course songs – all of which he performs himself – seems on the surface to be a cinch. Berkeley Repertory Theatre continues the Bay Area’s love affair with Hershey Felder as the company hosts the Eva Price, Samantha F. Voxakis, and Karen Racanelli production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, with the solo performer writing the book to tell the story of Berlin’s lyrics and music.
Sitting at a grand piano and surrounded by a twinkling Christmas tree as well as furniture, pictures, and relics recalling Irving Berlin’s long life (all beautifully co-designed by the evening’s star with Trevor Hay), Hershey Felder becomes Irving Berlin as a century of his life and of American history unfolds before us in songs and stories galore. Starting as a five-year-old escaping a Czar’s pogrom in Tyumen, Russia, Mr. Felder as Berlin gives us a first-hand view of his journey across the turbulent Atlantic to the moment he sees Lady Liberty, a sight that affects him, his sense of patriotism, and his music for the rest of his life. We hear him as he buskers in the streets of the Bowery to earn pennies for his parents, as he graduates to be a singing waiter (a moniker that will stay with him for years in New York gossip headlines), and as he publishes his first song as a teenager in New York’s Chinatown, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” But at 23 when he publishes “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (“Funny thing, it was actually a march,” we hear), Berlin’s career begins a celestial journey of glorious hit after hit, with Irving Felder giving us both the background story and the song as sung by the master himself in a voice that has the 1920s, 30s, and 40s joyful intonations we now only hear on occasional recordings and films.
The insights we gain of Berlin are by the dozens as the evening progresses. Berlin’s humor is delightful (“I can only play in one key, F# ... Black keys, they stand out”). We learn his songs came from his everyday experiences (“Every time I can turn a popular idea into a musical number, I win”) and from the grief of a number of family deaths (“I don’t like being alone, so the safest place for me to be is to stay in a song”). Songs become the gifts he gives to a bride (“I’ll Be Loving You Always”) or to a baby daughter (“Blue Skies”), but as we listen to our on-stage Berlin croon such tunes, it is obvious they are actually gifts that keep giving to all of us.
When at the piano as Berlin, Mr. Felder’s fingers’ fly lightly across the keyboard with speed and spark while his voice often floats in dreamy melodic ease in such tunes as “What’ll I Do?” Rarely looking at the keys themselves, he instead keeps almost constant eye contact with his audience as if we are in fact in his living room visiting and chatting as friends. On occasion, our Berlin jumps from the stool and lovingly wanders over to an empty chair to interact with his wife or enthusiastically runs to show us a picture or to tell us a funny story at stage’s edge.
Some of the best moments of the evening are the many both familiar and less familiar people we get to meet who were big parts of Irving Berlin’s career. From distinct, back-throated singing of Al Jolson in the first-ever sound film (“The Jazz Singer”) to the blasting voice of the great Ethyl Merman (“Like writing for a steam ship fog horn”), Messieurs Felder and Berlin keep us in fascinated stitches as we hear songs sung in and by the voices of the famous. Sometimes supplemented by projected films of old, sometimes with our Berlin playing and singing along to recorded music, and often just becoming those voices himself, Mr. Felder walks us through a treasury full of those who sang Berlin’s hits. Particularly touching is his rendition of the great Ethel Waters belting in passionate pain and then whispering in reflecting sadness, “Suppertime ... and My Man Ain’t Coming Home No More,” a song from a 1933 Broadway musical when Berlin dared star a Black woman on Broadway singing about her husband who had been lynched.
For all that has been revealed about the evening, the above is only a glimpse of the total present Mr. Felder presents to the audience. Dozens of songs (some of which the audience is encouraged to do the singing themselves), anecdotes that change by the minute, and a parade of personalities who come to life on the stage with Irving Berlin fill the ninety minutes with what could be hours worth of entertainment in any other show. Supplemented by incredibly well-done projections and film clips by Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert and by beautifully effective lighting design by Richard Norwood, Trevor Hay directs Mr. Felder’s flow of almost one hundred years with seamless ease and perfection. Erik Carstensen ensures the sound clips of singing and spoken voices are as crisp and clear as they were many decades ago (or at least as the original, crackly radios and early films allowed them to be).
To be entertained while also learning so much history about the man behind so many songs that run in their entirety through any of our heads at the mention of any one title – that is a gift. As Irving Berlin (aka Hershey Felder) reveals to us at the end of the evening, “I wrote for you ... above all, for you.” Thank you, Hershey Felder and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, for this gift.
Rating: 5 E
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continues through April 30, 2017, in production on the Main Stage of Berkeley Repertory’s Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photo Credit: Hershey Felder Presents