BWW Review: HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN at Hartford Stage
From George Gershwin through such musical luminaries as Franz Lizst, Frederick Chopin, and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the actor, playwright and composer Hershey Felder has brought the life and music of any number of musical luminaries to audiences across the United States, Canada and the world, winning himself in the process his own category on the quiz show "Jeopardy" earlier this year.
He has now brought his meticulously researched production on the life of one of the 20th century's most beloved popular composers to life at Hartford Stage in "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin." It's a fascinating, fast-moving evening that chronicles the life of the songwriter responsible for such hits as "Easter Parade," "Blue Skies," and "There's No Business Like Show Business," along with such popular musicals as "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Call Me Madam," both of which he accommodated to the specific vocal style of Ethel Merman.
Felder plays a sort of double role in this show, as the elder Berlin, a recluse in his New York townhouse in December 1988 as a group of carolers gather outside of his window to regale him with his signature "White Christmas," and as the memory of his younger self, who for purposes of the plot, invites the singers in to regale them with stories of life.
And what a remarkable life it was. Even if one is familiar with Berlin's hundreds of hits, his life story is nonetheless packed with hurtles, tragedies, overwhelming successes and a boundless record of creativity unsurpassed in the annals of American popular music and musical theater. Donning round, coke-bottle like glasses and a black flat-haired wig, while wearing Stacey Nezda's period-appropriate early 20th-century suits, Felder believably becomes Berlin, recounting his immigration from Russia following a series of frightening pogroms to New York's lower east side to his natural gift for song writing starting with "Marie from Sunny Italy," composed in his late teens as a singing waiter in Little Italy.
Felder, in excellent imitation of Berlin's voice, takes virtually every opportunity to bring the composer's vast repertory to life as he chronicles the young man's remarkable rise to success, starting with his first major success, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which he confesses was not really a rag beat all, to becoming the in-demand songwriter for any number of Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals. Along the way, he developed trademark collaborations with the likes of Fred Astaire ("Puttin' on the Ritz"), Florence Ziegfeld ("A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody') and Al Jolson ("Mammy'), to name a few.
Berlin's genuine ambition, borne in part out of his decision to leave behind his immigrant family-so as not to be a burden to them-led him to make some astute business decisions over the years, such as building his own theater, the Music Box, in the heart of Manhattan's theater district, to buying back all the rights to his original songs, that helped him survive the depression and thrive in his later years when his style of peppy, overtly romantic and often patriotic anthems grew out of public favor.
Felder is careful to place these accomplishments in context with Berlin's own difficulties and tragedies, from the poverty of his early life in New York through such events as the death of his beloved first wife, Dorothy, who died six months into their marriage, and the miscarriages of his second wife before they were able to go on to parent three beloved daughters, who were each welcomed into the world with original songs.
Felder conveys the ups and downs of Berlin's emotional struggles, which he addressed primarily through music which indeed served as a cure-all for his indomitable spirit. And this was a spirit he tried to pass on to his adopted country, writing patriotic songs to inspire the troops overseas in both World Wars and creating and starring in musicals to inspire both soldiers and home front audiences. "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and "This is the Army" became instant hits and presented a patriotism that was neither jingoistic nor pandering, but instead celebrated the actual experiences and endurance of those in the military. His "God Bless America," however, written at the height of the first World War but shelved for nearly two decades because some did indeed feel it was just a bit too treacly and sugary, secured its place in American history as an anthem marking this country's ability to overcome the depression just as war clouds were gathering over Europe.
As a gifted pianist, Felder makes the most out of Berlin's music, incorporating little jokes into some of the composer's most familiar works and, as appropriate, encouraging audience sing-alongs revealing the crowd's pent-up enthusiasm to join in to some of these irresistible tunes. Director Trevor Hay guides te production smoothly, with just the right mixture of memory and music, while Felder's own scenic design conveys with some sense of accuracy Berlin's actual drawing room.
Thanks to Felder, one comes to realize what a complex and creative life Berlin led. His total output is one of the most significant and stunning achievements of American music, encompassing any number of genres and traditions. While more recent generations may want to write Berlin off as a merely an audience-savvy composer of this time, Felder reveals the marvelous depths of feeling that motivated much of the songwriter's canon that extend beyond the mere commercial but into something revelatory about the American spirit and those who are grateful enough to acknowledge the opportunities this country has provided to those with unerring ambition.