Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Trevor Hay
Featuring: Hershey Felder
Running time: 105 minutes, no intermission
When: January 13 through February 14, 2016
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $35-$100 (savings available for educators, seniors, and patrons 30 and under). visit theatreworks.org or call 1-650-463-1960
and, also, Irving Berlin
a great tribute to one of the best songwriters ever
Confession: I wasn't entirely looking forward to seeing "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin."
I was thinking, "OK, a cover band. Maybe more sophisticated, but a cover band."
Confession Two: Hoo boy, was I wrong.
"Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" is a great show that just doesn't just dress up Felder in black glasses and call him the historic songwriter.
It's a brilliantly written and staged biography of one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and every element of the show is excellent.
It is a tour de force by Felder, who wrote the book, co-designed the surprising set (with Trevor Hay), plays the piano, sings beautifully with an impressive range, and is an excellent actor.
The show opens with a younger Irving Berlin castigating the older Berlin, who is (at this point) invisible but sitting in a wheelchair at the age of 101. There is a huge Christmas tree upstage, behind a grand piano, and we see snow falling through the windows behind.
At issue is a choir that is serenading Berlin with one of his own, countless songs, "White Christmas." The old man is complaining that the singers don't really understanding the meaning of the song; but as we learn, the meaning of most of Berlin's most-known and greatest songs — from "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "What'll I Do," "Always," "Blue Skies" and "God Bless America" and hundreds of others — were woven into the fabric of his life like golden thread in a complex tapestry.
The younger Berlin invites the choral group into his home, and begins to tell them the story of Berlin's life, which began in a small Jewish town in Belarus. Berlin remembers being 5 years old and watching his home burning to the ground. (Tsar Nicholas II had sent Cossacks on a pogram.)
The audience becomes the chorus, of course, and in fact, Felder invites us all to sing along with him on several tunes, which is fun.
(Here's a suggestion: If you go to this show, which I recommend, try to have yourself seated next to a beautiful professional singer. For me, it was a happy accident, but as soon as I heard soprano Jennifer Mitchell's crystalline tones coming into my right ear, I shut up immediately and just listened to her.)
Speaking of singing along, TheatreWorks, late in January, announced a special sing-along concert with Felder. "Hershey will take you through 100 years of American music from the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, through Bernstein, Sondheim and many more, and you're invited to sing along!" said a press release on January 27.
It sold out immediately.
Also speaking of selling tickets, on February 4, in a press release, TheatreWorks Managing Director Phil Santora announced, "'Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin' ... has become — by a wide margin — the highest grossing show in the company’s 46-year history." The production has grossed more than $735,000, including $434,900 in single ticket sales to date. That with almost two weeks left in the show's run. It closes on February 14. That success comes right after the record-breaking run of "Jane Austen's 'Emma,'" the December show that also broke records.
But I digress. When Felder talks about young Israel Isidore Baline, the upstage wall changes from being the inside of Berlin's upscale home, and becomes a village in Belarus. It is fine projection work, by Andrew Wilder and Lawrence Siefert, and ably helps tell the tale. Over the course of the show, we photos from his life, including of his two wives, and see and hear clips from movies for which he provided music. Al Jolson singing "Blue Skies" in "The Jazz Singer" is hilarious.
And, Felder continues to play piano and sing, oftentimes, during those film clips.
Lots of laughs, including when he has Berlin gleeful exclaim that "Alexander's Ragtime Band" wasn't even ragtime. "It was a march!" he said.
Times were tough for the Beilin (then Baline) family in New York. Lots of Jewish families had immigrated, thanks to the Tsar's pogroms, and Berlin's father couldn't find work as a cantor. He got a job checking dead chickens to be sure they had been killed by kosher rules, then died when Berlin was 13. Berlin thought he wasn't making enough money, selling newspapers, to help support his family, so he left to live in the streets, so as to not be a burden.
Eventually, he started singing in bars, and started writing music. In a time when musical success was counted in sheets of music sold, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" made Berlin the most popular songwriter in the world, when he was 23.
Eventually, he was able to set up a home for his mother.
The show is an impressive account of history — what it was like to be in tsarist Russia, what it was like to live in the streets in crowded New York, and certainly how Berlin's career changed as he became an important writer of musicals for stage and film. He was in the Army during World War I, and wrote "God Bless America" for Kate Smith just before the start of World War II, and raised lots of money for war relief.
Felder recounts how Felder donated the rights to "God Bless America" to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America (for which it has raised millions of dollars), and that Berlin got hate mail for doing so. He was later to get a Congressional Gold Medal from President Dwight Eisenhower for that action.
And, we hear about his two wives. He married Dorothy Goetz in 1912 and took her to Havana for their honeymoon, where she contracted typhus. She died six months later, breaking his heart and leading him to write his first ballad, "When I Lost You."
Felder's recount of Berlin's second marriage, to Ellin Mackay, is wonderfully charming. He has Berlin meeting the sophisticated, wealthy socialite, and mimics her voice hilariously as she tells him she is familiar with his song, "What Shall I Do?" He corrects her: "It's 'What'll I Do?'"
They eventually marry, and are together for 62 years. The photos of the real Berlin and Mackay are charming.
Part of the fun of the show, in fact is how Felder imitates various voices. Certainly lots of people with Yiddish accents, but Mackay's well-bred tones are especially charming.
Berlin had an amazing life and career, and this show is a delightful tribute. I could say more about it, but ... better I should leave you to discover its charms in person.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org