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Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 5, 2018

Hershey Felder
Photo by Hershey Felder Presents

Pianist, composer, and theatrical storyteller Hershey Felder has carved out a specialized niche for himself with his staged presentations about musical masters, from classicists Frédéric Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven to our own iconic superstars George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Felder's Maestro, which he brought to 59E59 Theaters a couple of years back, was an intriguing take on Mr. Bernstein, one that highlighted his subject's professional accomplishments while also digging into the psychological profile of a complicated genius. Now 59E59 is host to Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin, a work that is not so much an analysis as it is a loving tribute to America's cherished songwriter and model immigrant-as-patriot.

The show opens on a sitting room in Berlin's Beekman Place townhouse. There is a Christmas tree and strings of lights scattered around, and through the window, we can see it is snowing. It is easy enough to anticipate what happens next, at least for anyone who recalls the annual pilgrimage by carolers who gathered on the street beneath that window to serenade Berlin and his wife of 62 years, the socialite and novelist Ellin Mackay. And sure enough, the first thing we hear is the soft sound of voices singing Berlin's "White Christmas."

But before you get too caught up in the treacle of the moment, you realize something is amiss. Berlin, represented by an empty wheelchair, is 100 years old. His wife has just passed away, and, as Felder relates it, he is a "bitter old curmudgeon" who just wants to be left alone. "They don't deserve [my songs] because they have no idea what they're singing about."

Actually, there are two Irving Berlins onstage. Standing beside the wheelchair is the songwriter at the height of his success. That younger man is the one Felder portrays almost to the very end of the show. He is, for the most part, in chipper spirits and delighted to invite us in so he can tell us his story. More importantly, he wants us to know "what they're singing about" by explaining how he was inspired to compose some 1,500 songs. Many of these are so familiar to us that he has us sing along to a couple for which he rightly assumes he will not have to prompt us with the words.

With so many tunes to choose from, Felder cannot fully evade the "And then I wrote" syndrome. During the course of the evening, he offers up more than two dozen songs, from "Always," which Berlin composed as a wedding gift to Ellin, to his earliest successes like "Russian Lullaby," a tribute to his cantor father; and "Marie from Sunny Italy," meant to appeal to the Italian customers at the restaurant where he worked as a singing waiter. Among the others, we also get some he wrote for Fred Astaire films ("Puttin' On The Ritz," "Cheek to Cheek") and for Ethel Merman (Broadway's "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Call Me Madam").

Felder is an enthusiastic if not the most polished of singers, but then, neither was Berlin, who you can find via an easy Internet search performing his World War I salute to tired Doughboys everywhere, "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." To my ear, Felder is at his best when he moves away from his baby grand piano and his virtuoso arrangements of the Berlin repertoire, and stands quietly downstage to sing an unaccompanied medley. It is than that you can best appreciate the blend of music and lyrics of standards like "How Deep Is The Ocean?" and "Steppin' Out With My Baby." There also are a number of enjoyable projections of film clips with songs performed by Fred Astaire, Al Jolson ("Blue Skies") and a few others. More like these would enhance the two-hour intermissionless production by making it more about Berlin and less about Felder-as-Berlin.

Unfortunately, we don't get to know nearly as much about Berlin the man as we do about Berlin the composer. Beyond the songs and the stories of their creation, beyond the snippets of biography and the anecdotes, we are largely left to our own devices to discern what drove him. In Felder's interpretation, at least, he comes off as a self-starter who left home at the age of 13 after his father died, a night owl driven to write songs from a personal perspective on his life in his adopted land. His famous patriotic song "God Bless America," for instance, contains the words, "Land that I love." That "I" is very important to Berlin. Like the songs he wrote for his family, it has an intimate meaning. If anything, that is the message Felder wants us to take with us.

Whether you view Berlin's music as timeless or old-fashioned or somewhere in between, there is the ring of truth to what the composer expresses as his raison d'être in the final words of the show: "I wrote for love. I wrote for my country. I wrote for my darling Ellin. I wrote for our beautiful children. But above all, I wrote for you."

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Through October 28
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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