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BWW Reviews: HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN: A NEW MUSICAL PLAY

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin: A New Musical Play

Lyrics and Music by Irving Berlin, Book by Hershey Felder, Directed by Trevor Hay; Scenic Design, Hershey Felder & Trevor Hay; Lighting Design, Richard Norwood; Original Lighting Design, Christopher Rynne; Projection Design, Andrew Wilder; Sound Design/Production Manager, Erik Carstensen; Dramaturge/Research, Meghan Maiya; Scenic Decoration, Meghan Maiya, Jordan Hay, Emma Hay

Performances extended through August 2 by ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage at Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-828-8400 or www.artsemerson.org

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is a feel-good musical play that naturally attracts an older audience, but will delight any and all who appreciate hearing an array of standards from the American song book. Russian immigrant Berlin may have adopted the United States as his homeland, but his love for this country was unbounded and he expressed it in songs that rallied people to come together in times of war and austerity, that celebrated happy days, and that soothed hearts broken by unbearable loss. Listening to just over two dozen of them as played by pianist Felder with his trademark technique and flourish evoked memories and solidified Berlin's place as one of the great American composers of all time.

ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage presents the East Coast premiere of this musical portrait painted with love and respect by an artist who excels at the solo tribute. Felder has previously breathed life into George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and a string of classical composers, including Chopin and Beethoven. Paired with his frequent collaborator Trevor Hay as director and co-scenic designer, Felder plays Berlin as a young man conversing with his aged self (addressing an empty wheelchair), reminiscing about his early family life, escaping from the pogroms in Russia, and growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There is no "fourth wall" barrier between him and the audience, allowing for a very warm and intimate experience. As a matter of fact, several times Berlin invites the audience to sing along with him on such well-known compositions as "Always," "God Bless America," and, of course, "White Christmas," the highest-selling recording in history. We all know the songs, but it is a treat to hear him tell the back stories.

It is estimated that Berlin wrote approximately 1500 songs, so the play barely reveals the tip of the iceberg. However, Felder includes a nice mix of unknown gems, lovely ballads, stirring patriotic tunes, and the ones that absolutely must be on the playlist, such as the aforementioned sing-alongs. A couple of my personal favorites covered from the Berlin catalogue are "Alexander's Ragtime Band," his first major hit, and "Blue Skies," written for one of his daughters. He wrote for both stage and screen, and the list of popular artists who sang his songs is full of legendary stars (Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra - I could go on). He was also highly respected by other composers of his day, even meriting a shout-out in Cole Porter's "You're the Top" from Anything Goes.

Simply by listening to the lyrics and letting the music wash over you, it is obvious that Berlin had great intelligence and a huge heart. Felder captures his persona and radiates it out into the darkened theater. As he gradually ages the character, he takes care to explain Berlin's rationale for why he wrote and what drove him, telling us, "I wrote for love, for my country, for my daughters, and absolutely for you." Berlin stopped composing in 1971, but his music has stood the test of time. Lucky for us that Hershey Felder continues to honor his legacy.

Photo credit: 88 Entertainment (Hershey Felder)


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From This Author Nancy Grossman