BWW Review: HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN at 59E59
A handsome room decorated to the nines for Christmas, candles all aglow, with a Steinway concert grand at center stage is your first glimpse into the life of America's most prolific and famous songwriter. The room itself tells a bit of the story and he's not even present. But then...out of the sudden darkness, Irving Berlin appears before you. He speaks in the tones of the bitter centenarian he is, angered by the Christmas carolers he hears (as do we) singing one of his most famous songs. "They have no idea..." about this song and its significance. In a flash, he becomes his younger self and invites the carolers (we, the audience) to hear the story of his life, and Irving Berlin, as engagingly personified by Hershey Felder, invites us into his fascinating world.
For the next hour and forty-five minutes, real time seems suspended as Mr. Felder unspools Berlin's narrative, beginning at the beginning with his childhood in Belarus. At the age of five, Berlin, born Yisroel Beilin, flees his small village after his family experiences more than enough of Tsar Nicholas II's state-sponsored pogroms. With his parents and seven siblings he lands on the Lower East Side of New York of the early 1890s. It's now known that no one's name was changed at Ellis Island (although Mr. Felder uses this myth for dramatic purposes), but perhaps due to a printer's error -years after coming to America- Beilin became Berlin. The more American sounding "Irving" followed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
During the years between 1880 and 1924 approximately two million Eastern European Jews came to the United States seeking safety, freedom from oppression, and a better quality of life. Berlin's is the classic immigrant survival and success story. Mr. Felder presents it with great feeling for the struggles of Berlin's family, singing the early songs of the composer as he accompanies himself on the Steinway. Along the way the audience learns of the triumphs and toils of his hard-earned professional life as well as the triumphs and tragedies of his personal life, all with the heart-felt songs Berlin composed.
Mr. Felder not only creates the character of Irving Berlin but also those of his musical assistants, his first and second wives, their families, and a number of others, even including Elvis Presley! Mr. Felder is so adept at this stagecraft that the audience feels as though these other people are actually onstage. Through his riveting acting and superb musicianship, Mr. Felder's portrayal of Irving Berlin makes this American musical icon come alive again. While Berlin himself was not much of a pianist, Mr. Felder is an accomplished virtuoso. He accompanies himself, and at several points the audience, with sensitivity to the appropriate mood of each song. "Always" does not sound like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" nor should it. In Mr. Felder's capable hands, these and so many other songs are delivered with historical and musical accuracy, they tell Berlin's story...and above all with exactly the right emotions for the time and the tune. It's a lovely moment when Berlin invites the audience to sing "God Bless America" and "White Christmas," Audience participation can be a tricky thing. Mr. Felder handles it to perfection.
Mr. Felder is ably abetted by the beautiful lighting and haunting projections of his lighting designer Richard Norwood and projection designer Brian McMullen as well as the balanced, nuanced sound design of Erik Carstensen. Trevor Hay delightfully serves Mr.Felder's book as Director of this magnificently conceived production.
As to why the elderly Irving Berlin is so annoyed with his unwanted Christmas visitors...for the answer you must see this marvelous show yourself. Get to the 59E59 Theater before the end of the run on October 28th!