By Ian Rigg
Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He IS American music. Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world—simplified, clarified and glorified.”
True to the man it venerates, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is stripped down, sentimental and spectacular.
The production’s earnestness is one of the keys to its excellence, keys as numerous as the grand piano onstage. As the star of the show quips, “I only know how to play in one key: F#. It’s the black keys, they stick out more.” Each of the team members constitute a key, and each of them stick out for their excellence.
Richard Norwood’s lighting design is absolutely astounding. The splendid sound design of Eric Carstensen gives patrons the ghost of carolers and crashing waves, both of the ocean and of the radio. And the projections by Andrew Wilder are phenomenal and well-integrated to the set and show, showcasing everything from falling snow to images of war and Jewish pogroms to clips of Fred Astaire and The Jazz Singer. And the atmosphere is complete with set design by Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay. Flickering candles, oak furniture, keepsakes of bygone eras all combine for a simultaneous air of opulence, humility, and fading glory, all adorned with Christmas decorations. Even the balcony banisters of the Royal George are affixed with lights and garland. As Berlin composed the consummate Christmas classic “White Christmas,” it’s only fitting.
Yuletide makes for the perfect mechanism for Felder to beckon the audience into his home, interacting with theatregoers as the “christmas carolers” he always regretted never inviting in. And yet in devising this piece, Christmas is much more than a framing device. As Felder reveals through touching monologues, Christmas meant so much to Berlin, whose life was laden with such triumph and tragedy, filling him with such happiness and tears.
One even hopes that this merry and melancholy musical becomes a perennial holiday hit. There are even opportunities for the audience to sing along, Felder guiding them through “Always,” “God Bless America,” and of course, “White Christmas.” As it stands, the show is as much a hit as much as any of Berlin’s (who as Felder informs, had 32 top 10 hits and 25 number ones), if not in notoriety, than at least in care and craftsmanship.
That care and craftsmanship comes from all members of the production team, but none more than its sole star, the true reason the show is a resounding success. His name is in the title, and that’s completely appropriate, for his soul is in the show. He wrote the play, equal parts biography and beautiful tribute, and also co-designed the sumptuous scenery. That would be impressive in its own right, and then he humbly walks onto the stage and blows all of that away with his crackling piano playing and careful consideration of the composer.
Felder is a master portraying a master. He completely immerses himself in the part, simultaneously immersing the audience in the microcosm of Berlin. Felder mimics Berlin’s idiosyncrasies incredibly well. True to the composer himself, his choices are peculiar, powerful, phenomenal. His mastery of mimicry matches his mastery of structure and character study.
From the get-go, Felder sets the tone for his terrific performance, introducing a sense of weary whimsy. By beginning with the wheelchair representing his older self, he also sets a precedent for his acting against inanimate objects, his only scene partners in his one-man show. Supplemented by Norwood’s lighting design, Felder’s sentimental acting ensures audiences will again never be as emotionally devastated by a chair. He is hilarious, he is heartbreaking, and his delivery of song and story alike are effortless and evocative. He holds the audience’s attention for the entire duration of the piece, holding their hearts in the palm of his nimble hands.
Hershey Felder subtly, splendidly showcases a legendary life, and ages before the audience’s eyes. As he wistfully muses, “What a song will never do is leave you alone.” As you travel home from your stay at Irving Berlin’s, his quintessential songs shan’t leave you alone. You’ll be loving Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, always.
The Royal George Theatre presents “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” through May 8 on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Mor information and tickets ($60) are available by phone at (312) 988-9000 or online here