Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
This tune-filled one-man show by and starring actor/playwright/ pianist/Renaissance Man Hershey Felder tells the story of Irving Berlin through his songs, music, dialogue, acting, rear projections, etc. How amazing that the composer of "White Christmas", "Easter Parade" and "God Bless America" (written for Americana icon Kate Smith during the Depression) was a cantor’ son, a Jewish immigrant from Belarus!!! Who knew?
Through rear projections, acting, etc., Felder brings Israel Isidore Beilin -- aka Irving Berlin -- alive, from his birthplace in Mogilyov, in what was the Russian Empire, to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where a pogrom drove his family, and on through his rise at Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood with the advent of talkies and beyond, living to be more than a century old and literally writing hundreds of hit songs.
We also learn a lot about the man behind the hits, who was married to a society dame for 62 years and has a beautiful line about “marrying up.” Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is at its best and most insightful when revealing the wellspring whence its subject’s lyrics and music sprang from. For example, he discloses the private meanings the beloved "White Christmas" held for Berlin, [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] who lost his first wife to typhoid after a Havana honeymoon. The rear projections and design by Andrew Wilder, as well as the simple set (representing various Berlin abodes) also help express the man’s life and times.
The two-hour play, performed, remarkably, without an intermission, also reminds us of Berlin’s prodigious output, with many songs betraying a sly wit, including “Putting On the Ritz”, the hilarious “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” (wistful thinking about shooting an army bugler for blowing Reveille), as well as songs in Hollywood’s first motion picture with synchronized sound, The Jazz Singer. (Interestingly, that 1927 milestone movie is about a cantor’s son who forsakes religious music to pursue a pop music career -- a theme that presumably was resonant with Berlin.)
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The multi-talented Felder specializes in live stage shows that bring Jewish composers back to life. This reviewer loved Felder’s phenomenal Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein at the Geffen Playhouse (where Berlin recently opened; it was so popular it is now at the Laguna Playhouse). Felder also starred in George Gershwin Alone and has performed on Broadway and at London's West End.
Felder’s grand ol’ one-man show, ably directed by Trevor Hay, reminds us of Berlin’s glory days and in doing so demonstrates that time hasn���t completely passed the onetime singing waiter by.
The versatile Felder specializes in expressing the souls of Jewish folk (to borrow a phrase from W.E.B. Du Bois) through music. He is, of course, Jewish and interestingly, is married to Canada's former Prime Minister, Kim Campbell.
Although some Berlin hits have endured, the longevity of the composer of numbers such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” outlived most of his audience and inevitably, his thematic obsessions and with them many of his songs lost their popularity. In terms of patriotic boosterism, Berlin’s oeuvre fell into disfavor during the sizzling sixties, when a more self-reflective awareness of America’s role at home and abroad arose and jingoism became uncool. Much of Berlin’s work is treacly and overly sentimental, and when ruing rock ‘n’ roll’s rise he comes across as a grumpy old fogey lamenting the fact that he couldn’t keep up with the times, and lost his audience, leading to Berlin’s becoming a recluse in his later years.
But Felder’s grand ol’ one-man show, ably directed by Trevor Hay, reminds us of Berlin’s glory days and in doing so demonstrates that time hasn’t completely passed the onetime singing waiter by, that immigrant who wrote and rose to stardom, going from rags to ragtime to riches. Felder is simply a phenom!
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is playing Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. through Feb. 8 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. (Note: There are additional Thursday performances on Jan. 22 and Feb. 5 at 2:00 p.m. and no show on Tuesday, Jan. 20.) For more info: (949) 497-ARTS; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.