BWW Reviews: HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN
Once again* the uniquely talented Hershey Felder endears his audience to him with his newest presentation, the life and work of the one and only composer Irving Berlin in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin. Currently onstage at the Geffen Playhouse through December 21, Felder's tribute, although a bit long - coming in a tad short of two hours without an interval - is enriching, humorous and replete with most of the brilliant Berlin tunes.
Israel "Izzy" Beilin was a Jewish immigrant from Russia and was born May 11, 1888. He, his parents and siblings worked at menial jobs in the early 20th century on the lower East Side of Nw York to carve out a living until he was given a break playing piano in a club in Chinatown. Self-taught, Berlin never read music and learned to play the piano, hammering out melodies on the keys as a child. From an early age, he fell in love with music and, like his idol Stephen Foster, set his goal to "write music for the people in a most refined way". Through the years, his songs symbolized America, and at a tribute to his 101 years - he died September 22, 1989 - it was quoted that Berlin "was America".
Perhaps one of the reasons for the length of Felder's show entails Berlin's longevity. It's quite a bio to cram into two hours. Tragedy did strike for he lost his first wife Dorothy Goetz to typhoid fever after a mere five months of marriage and his first child, an infant son died suddenly one night - he just stopped breathing - but, unlike other composers who died young suffering from malnutrition or life-threatening illnesses and who are remembered for only one or two compositions, Berlin lived to 101...and was so prolific with a plethora of standards to his credit, as well as many Hollywood films and Broadway shows. Movies with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby like Top Hat, Holiday Inn, White Christmas and musical stage shows such as Annie Get Your Gun, and Call Me Madam, that Ethel Merman put her eternal stamp on, are still considered some of the best ever created. Tunes like "Always", "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "God Bless America", - all proceeds to this day go to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America - "What'll I Do?", "Blue Skies", "Puttin' On the Ritz", "Heatwave" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" to name but a few, remain without a doubt the greatest compositions in the American Songbook. Berlin deserves to be revered. He is a legend, an institution, but like anyone else had his failures and, toward the end, pretty negative views about how musical tastes have evolved through the years.
Felder as writer has cleverly set the piece with both the young Berlin and the old wheel-chair bound man opening the show. As some Christmas carolers pass by on Christmas Eve, the old Berlin complains that they know nothing about the meaning of what they are singing like"White Christmas". He also thumbs his nose at Elvis Presley who brought a newfound success to the song in the 50s. The young Berlin, on the contrary, still unjaded, invites the singers in, lauding their enthusiasm for his music. He then relates his story, taking us back to the very beginning. Through good and bad times, his philosophy about music remained unchanged; he always longed to create, 'the perfect song', simple and unfettered. "Say It With Music" expresses his claim that "the safest place to be is in a song".
There is much to be learned about Irving Berlin through Felder's eyes. Did you know that he founded the Music Box Revue Theatre in New York with infamous New York producer Sam H. Harris? Did you know that he married one of the richest ladies in the world Ellin Mackay and that her father Clarence Mackay disowned her when she married Berlin? As a couple they were referred to as 'the singing waiter from the East Side and the socialite'. There are humorous anecdotes about the army and how Berlin hated every second of it, writing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", and how "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was not ragtime, but a march. Did you know that "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" became Flo Ziegfeld's theme song on Broadway? Or that Ethel Waters became a singing sensation in As Thousands Cheer with "Supper Time"?
Felder's odyssey of Irving Berlin's life and career is chock full of precious facts and memories. Perhaps the most endearing piece of info comes at the end. When asked "Why did you write songs?" His reply? "I did it for LOVE, my country, my wife, my children...and YOU." Once again Felder, under Trevor Hay's loving direction, envelops himself in his characterization and has a ball, breaking the fourth wall and playing it full-out to the audience. He becomes the master of song Irving Berlin, pulling in everyone within earshot... and you do not want to miss a delicious moment of it. Hay and Felder even designed the set of the lovely living room of the Berlin home, beautifully decorated for Christmas. Andrew Wilder is credited for designing the arresting black and white projections.
*This is one of 7 solo shows in which Mr. Felder sings, plays the piano and talks in character as the composer.