Several years ago, I had the first opportunity to appreciate the talents of Hershey Felder in his successful one-man show “George Gershwin Alone.” At the time I noted Felder’s gifts for dramatic storytelling, musical diversity and light comedy. They are too considerable to overlook.
However I don’t think it was until this week, during the Midwest press premiere of his latest success, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” that I fully appreciated the artist as historian and archivist, as playwright, as versatile mimic. He owns the work completely. In the press materials distributed with my ticket, there are exactly two individuals credited with every nuance of the production: Director Trevor Hay (who previously collaborated with Felder on the Gershwin piece) and Felder himself. It is extremely rare to encounter a work of art so dependent on the vision and diversity of so few.
And “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is beautiful, biographical art that requires the intimacy of stage to fully deliver on its subtle force. Felder is note perfect (in every sense) as “America’s composer” in a medium he has mastered. He knows how to work an audience familiar with Berlin’s iconic canon, hits such as the rollicking “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Like the masters he inhabits, Felder needs no side man.
Using Berlin’s long 101-year life and career as a natural structure, Felder becomes the man born in 1888 Belarus as Israel Isidore Baline. Fleeing Jewish persecution in the region, Berlin’s family emigrated to New York City in 1903. After the death of his father at the age of 13, Berlin took to the streets, selling newspapers and quite literally, singing for his supper. The young busker was ahead of his time in understanding an audience’s short attention span, and developed a precocious talent for catchy refrains, puns and lightly ribald riffs. A star was born, as is often the historical case, of want, poverty and nothing to lose.
With a 90-minute running time, Felder thoughtfully and carefully covers a number of highlights from a musical career marked by breathtaking proliferation. Of Berlin’s 232 top-ten hits and 25 number one songs, audiences can’t fail to tap their toes to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” or feel the misty emotion of standards like “Always” and “White Christmas.”
On the subject of Christmas Felder, like his source of inspiration, displays a canny sense of marketing and timing. Originally the artist’s “I Found My Horn” was slated to run at the Royal George Theatre during the booking dates occupied by “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.” However, sensing a unique and fitting opportunity to feature the work of an immigrant Jew who loved his adopted country and the holiday season, Felder made the programming change in mid-September. “I Found My Horn” will now make its debut next spring.
I commend Felder’s decision. As we took our seats, my companion for the evening remarked that given the recent shortening of days and advent of November, she hoped the performance would inspire the holiday spirit. I can confirm that we both thrilled at the production’s use of audio visual, which put Bing Crosby in the room for a few bars of “White Christmas.” It doesn’t get any more seasonally festive than that. The show’s flexible set also features a beautifully lit tree figuring in a number of the musical performances, as well as the stories of Berlin’s family life and long marriage to second wife Ellin Mackay.
The production’s press materials quote Jerome Kern, another iconic musical composer, as saying, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.” The same must be said of Felder. He’s in possession of rare talent for resurrecting the ghosts of our cultural past, breathing new life and relevancy into them, while stamping his own prodigious imprint. Berlin may have been a genius but I doubt he could have pulled off such a hilarious imitation of Ethel Merman, before pivoting to a heartbreaking chronicle of elderly widowerhood. The ability to evoke laughter and tears with equal, rapid effect should never be taken for granted.
It turns out for this critic, Hershey Felder, like the legends who inspire his work, grows more satisfying with each return experience. I’m already bugging my editor to assign me “I Found My Horn.”
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through Dec. 6 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-988-9000 or visit the Royal George Theatre website.