REVIEW: “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”
Composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) once said: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”
Like his composer-idol Stephen Foster (1826-1864) whose songs defined 19th century America—think “Camptown Races” and “Old Folks at Home”—the more than 1,500 compositions of Irving Berlin (1888-1989), an immigrant from present-day Belarus, have an easy claim to most clearly articulating the sound of popular American music for at least the first half of the 20th century.
In “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”, which opened tonight at 59E59 Theatres Off-Broadway, pianist and actor Hershey Felder entertainingly performs a docudrama of Berlin’s life through song and story. An intimate, one-man show for which he’s also penned the script, Mr. Felder crafts a compelling character in his portrayal of Irving Berlin, a once omnipresent cultural figure whose look, sound, and demeanor are likely unknown to most contemporary audiences.
On an ornamented set meant to be the living room of Berlin’s storied Beekman Place residence, decorated for Christmas with snow gently falling behind two windows, Mr. Felder, as a younger Berlin speaking to his unseen elderly self, addresses the audience as if we are carolers outside his door.
Mostly sitting at an elegant Steinway piano, or else standing stationary directly in front, he regales us with the fascinating story of his improbable life—from the canter’s son forced by fiery pogrom to flee his homeland, to the poor immigrant “singing waiter” on the Lower East Side plunking tunes without formal training, to the wunderkind of Broadway and Hollywood, and the elderly recluse.
Behind every song is a story, and the ones here assembled are irresistible. Irving Berlin was an unabashed patriot—serving in World War I and touring with his show “This is the Army” (later made into a film with Ronald Reagan and Kate Smith) during World War II. Understanding the roots of that pride, his childhood voyage from Russia capped with a welcome from Lady Liberty’s torch in New York Harbor, is central to understanding the sound he created and his never yielding love for country.
Mr. Felder’s niche professional mission has been to preserve, celebrate, and propagate the “Great American Songbook”, the canon of music comprising the most important and influential American songs of the early to mid-20th century (before the rise of rock and pop), alongside the works of great classical composers. He’s crafted nearly a dozen original evenings of bio-musicology around such American greats as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, and classical European giants like Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt.
This is the first of Mr. Felder’s shows that I have seen, but it will certainly not be the last. While I admit I have a penchant for didactic and biographical theatre, and the cultural history shared in “Irving Berlin” is important to know, working with long-time collaborator, director Trevor Hay, Mr. Felder’s presentation is also a pure delight.
Unlike most of the audience on the night I attended, Berlin’s songs—among them “Always”, “What’ll I Do?”, “Blue Skies”, “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, “Supper Time”, “White Christmas”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”—hold no strong personal nostalgia for me. I have always experienced them as the classics they are, divorced from the context of hearing them in their initial iterations. That the evening does not rely on such deep nostalgia to be successful is a testament to Mr. Felder’s convincing performance, and the greatness of the underlying material.
Yes, Irving Berlin was American music. He left behind over 1,500 songs, 18 Broadway shows, 16 feature films, and an impressive number of top hits that have been seamlessly woven into the fabric of American culture. A visit to “Hersey Felder as Irving Berlin” is as vital and stirring as visiting any national monument.
Bottom Line: In “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”, Mr. Felder, a pianist and actor, entertainingly performs a docudrama of legendary composer/lyricist Irving Berlin’s life through song and story. Informative and irresistible, the show does not rely on nostalgia for its success, and Mr. Felder gives a compelling and convincing performance.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”
59 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: September 5, 2018
Final Performance: October 28, 2018