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Hershey Felder’s depiction of Irving Berlin is a return to form after his less than inspiring turn as an iconic American president in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” a work that he brought to Boston in May of 2014.
Felder’s new work, “Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin,” is — like “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” — brought to Boston under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, and plays at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College. The show turns out to be a wonderful theater experience.
As the play begins, Felder, as a young version of Berlin (or perhaps a memory of that youthful self), addresses a wheelchair where, we’re given to understand, the 101-year-old composer rests. (This young self/old self trope may not be entirely original, but it’s effective for this one-man tour de force.) The youthful shade mocks his elderly alter ego for wishing that yuletide carolers (heard on Erik Carstensen’s sound design) would shut up and go away. A Christmas tree glows in the background. Through the windows, snow falling against a pitch-black sky can be seen, thanks to projection designer Andrew Wilder. (Projections are much used in this production and take place on two planes, the back wall and a screen behind the windows, to create a striking, visually layered look.) The play starts off during the very end of Berlin’s life, but these early cues deliberately remind us of the composer’s most beloved song, “White Christmas.”
The story gets to that record-setting, best-selling tune in due time, but first Felder wants to take us back to the beginning, and to Russia — to a bitter cold night when a quilt-wrapped tot named Israel Baline watches as Russian soldiers torch the Jewish village where the child’s family live. In the wake of this pogrom, the Baline family emigrates to America and set up house in a cramped New York City tenement. After young Izzy’s father dies, the boy — now 16 years old — sets out on his own, earning a meager living as a street performer. Later, Izzy works as a singing waiter — a moniker that sticks with him for decades to come, at least in his own mind — and, on a lark, he writes the lyrics to a satirical song meant to promote the restaurant where he’s employed. A music publisher hears the song, likes it and buys it. Izzy decides on a pen name that sounds less ethnic, and less like it belongs to an immigrant — and Irving Berlin is born.
Felder’s narrator explains to the audience that a composer’s life is one spent sweating blood for long hours, trying to find just the right combination of words and music to tell a story. But hard work on its own isn’t the key to his success; rather, it’s a deliberate effort on his part to identify what stories the music-buying public wants to hear that makes his songs so successful. Another crucial ingredient is that the songs are each drawn from a place of truth, be it love, a witty observation on the human condition, loneliness or even grief.
Felder’s projects (he’s previously played Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein) are carefully researched, and that comes through here — but not at the expense of the show’s spellbinding dramatic flow, or Felder’s frequent, crowd-pleasing sessions at the piano, where every trill and flourish sounds meticulously planned and placed, yet never come over as rote. We don’t just get a brisk, captivating tour through Berlin’s songbook (and what a songbook! The man wrote more than 200 Top 10 tunes, among them 25 number one hits), we get a musical diary of Berlin’s century-long lifetime.
It makes sense. As Felder, in character as Berlin, remarks, what does a songwriter have to give — not just sell, but give — except for his songs? Hence, “God Bless America,” written as a patriotic valentine to his adopted country just after World War I (and then stuck in a trunk for two decades); “Always,” a gift to second wife Ellin Mackay; and “Blue Skies,” a celebratory welcome to his first-born.
The personal nature of Berlin’s songwriting didn’t limit the appeal or cultural importance of the songs themselves. There’s a nugget of searing personal loss at the heart of “White Christmas,” as we learn here, but the song’s yearning quality resonated, at the start of World War II, with servicemen stationed around the world. A palliative intention during the Depression’s hard times informs “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” and legend has it that “Say It Isn’t So” played a part in salvaging Rudy Vallee’s marriage (though Felder has a different, and hilarious, take on the story than what you might have heard before).
Felder channels a chorus of voices throughout the performance, including that of Mackay, a socialite who married Berlin over her wealthy father’s objections, Ethel Merman and even Elvis Presley.
Another form of mimicry takes place over the play’s two-hour running time, as Berlin’s attitudes and creative powers ossify and his voice takes on the brittle quality of age. By the time we reach the closing minutes, the youthful sprite has sunk into that previously empty wheelchair in which, at the beginning, we imagined Berlin sitting during his final days. For us now, too, that effervescent specter of youth is a memory. It’s a final poignant note in a hit parade full of highs and lows — a great American life.
“Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin” continues through Aug. 2 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. For more information, visit ArtsEmerson's website.
Kilian Melloy has reviewed film and theater for a number of publications, including EDGE Boston and the Cambridge Chronicle. He is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association and the Boston Online Film Critics Association.
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