Israel Isidore Baline became an American legend though he was known worldwide by a different name – Irving Berlin. Hershey Felder brings Berlin to life on stage in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, a one-man show that he both wrote and performs in as it now enjoys its Northern California regional premiere at TheatreWorks.
This is his current work in a series of “piano plays” that Felder has created to explore the lives of great composers such as Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Bernstein, and now Berlin. Felder is himself a composer, playwright, concert pianist, and an actor with a burning interest in what made many of the greats, great.
It’s important to Felder to depict his subjects accurately, and he both educates and astounds audiences during his performances. Berlin wasn’t only prolific, writing some 1,500 songs during his productive years, he crossed boundaries and invented styles. Felder brings these various styles to life with aplomb as he plays (and sings) a wide selection of Berlin’s songs throughout the show, each used to illustrate a plot point from Berlin’s life.
Felder starts the play at the end of the line, playing Berlin’s younger self talking with Berlin’s older self. He is listening to the carolers singing outside his window on Christmas Eve. These carolers came to Berlin’s house for the last 26 years of his life, and one year, he invited them in. The audience members become that group of carolers as Felder breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to them as though they’ve joined him (as Berlin) in his living room. They are not only invited in to hear Berlin’s life story, they get to participate some of the time, as several of the songs become singalongs. At times, Felder calls out lyrics along the way as he plays the concert grand from center stage.
As Berlin’s tale begins, we flash back to his early boyhood in Russia. His village is destroyed by a pogrom, and the only thing the young boy remembered of the old country was his house in flames, reduced to ashes by the time he awoke the next morning. It wasn’t long after that the family emigrated to the United States and settled into a basement, cold-water flat on Cherry Street in Manhattan’s lower east side. Felder not only plays Berlin, he embodies several other characters along the way, sometimes trading lines with himself as multiple voices in the conversation. Sometimes he sings in Irving’s voice, sometimes in someone else’s.
As deftly as Felder plays Berlin and some of the people in his life, he also convincingly invokes the presence of invisible characters, particularly his wife of 62 years. The chair was empty, but Felder made us feel her presence emanating from it.
The narrative of Berlin’s story is compelling, and fully fact based. His story is one that exemplifies the hope of the new world, and the growth of an incredible talent whose legacy survives today. We find out that even though Berlin still experienced a measure of anti-Semitism along the way after escaping Czarist Russia, he loved his new country and the hope it gave him. He loved it so much, that he applied for citizenship in 1916. Because of various delays and paperwork hassles, he finally took his oath of citizenship two months shy of his 30th birthday in 1918.
Berlin couldn’t read music, so he used a series of musical secretaries to write down the songs as he played and sang them. In an amusing sequence, Felder explains Berlin’s methodology, all the way down to his special piano. There was a lever that allowed him shift his piano and play in the key of F# (focused on the black keys because they stuck out more), even when the songs were actually in some other key. Berlin was ahead of his time given his transposing keyboard was mechanical, not electronic.
Berlin wrote his first big song in 1911 – “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Contrary to its title, it curiously wasn’t a rag at all, but was instead a march. The song enjoyed a meteoric rise in the public consciousness internationally, though it wasn’t initially considered a hit in the states. Still, it brought him notoriety and contact with Oscar Hammerstein, among others, which started his growth as a songwriter.
Felder’s portrayal also captures Berlin’s home life and how that spawned some of his most touching ballads, such as “When I lost You” and “Always”. As Berlin’s family began to grow, the storyline shows him writing new songs for each of his children, presenting his gift of song to his greatest gifts.
The set is lovely as it depicts the cozy Berlin living room decked out for the Christmas holidays. The holiday lights are only on when we hit a Christmas season in the story, otherwise the lights are off. A large portrait hangs above the piano, and various images, including several movie clips are projected onto it and onto the walls and windows around it at different points in the story. Each “Christmas”, we see snow falling through the upstage windows.
At different points in the story, Felder plays along with clips of Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, and Ethel Merman, perfectly synchronized in time and pitch. After giving us a very complete picture of all that was Irving Berlin, Felder closes the show by answering the all-important question of why Berlin wrote what he did.
Felder is an incredible performer, and aided by director Trevor Hay, he gives an unforgettable performance. Berlin’s music has certainly stood the test of time, and Felder makes it seem that Irving Berlin has come back to enchant us making us appreciate the man and his music all the more. If you love Irving Berlin’s music, if you’ve forgotten that you love it, or if you need to discover it for the first time, this is the show for you. Don’t miss it!
What: Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, written and performed by Hershey Felder
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
When: Continues through 14 February 2016
See http://www.theatreworks.org/shows/1516-season/hershey-felder-irving-berlin, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.
(Photo credits: Eighty Eight Entertainment)