Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Also see Fred's reviews of America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro and Waitress
The scenic design finds Felder, for long stretches, playing a Steinway piano and sitting in Berlin's Beekman Place residence. Snow falls behind long rear windows adorned with heavy drapes. There is a brightly lit Christmas tree in the background. Irving Berlin was born in 1888 in Russia but, when he was five, the family left, came through Ellis Island, and found places to live on New York City's Lower East Side.
Berlin was a major contributor in Hollywood and on Broadway, too, with songs like "White Christmas," "Always," What'll I Do," "God Bless America," and many, many more. Felder spent several years researching and working on the show before it premiered in 2014. Trevor Hay is an effective director who helps Felder move around, and enables the fluid performer to constantly make a connection with the audience.
While playing piano, Felder sings, looks at the audience, and sometimes moves directly from one number to the next. Or, he stops and transfers to the dialogue he has written for the show. Felder is smooth and polished but, even after having performed the one hour and forty-five minute piece (without intermission) many, many times, he is eager within his presence.
Felder has developed shows about Beethoven, Bernstein, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Liszt, just to name a few. He has composed operas and music for symphony, directed, and adapted for live stage. What becomes evident during this production is his graceful skill at the piano. His command of the geography (the keyboard) enables him to execute some difficult passages with a seeming ease. Having taken to the concert stage at age 11, it is only natural that he and the piano are really complementary. His technique, which enables him to highlight without becoming too schmaltzy, is enviable. He has tossed just a bit of comedy, too. For example, one highlight moment features Felder's impersonation of Ethel Merman singing "There's No Business Like Show Business." This is spot-on and just hilarious.
The show is enhanced, at times, as projections of people and places (thanks to Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert) appear behind the performer to further inform the audience of situations and circumstances.
When the text and music conclude, the artist steps forward for an inclusive question and answer session. For those who now cringe, it is not an optional talkback but, rather, part of the show itself. The audience stays seated. Felder provides context for his work and the arc of his own career. This is a man who says piano playing involves his ear and brain first, with the fingers following. He is at the keyboard pretty much each day. Thus, it is not so surprising that his Irving Berlin, rousing at the beginning with "Alexander's Ragtime Band," is (for those, of course, who enjoy the sort of pop music Berlin wrote) a sweet celebratory experience. If this kind of fare is not your cup of cocoa, Felder's gifts will still draw much admiration.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, through June 30, 2019, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford CT. For tickets and information, call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.