Showing posts with label Hershey Felder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hershey Felder. Show all posts

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Hershey Felder BECOMES Irving Berlin in this One Man Tour de Force



The final performance at the Westport Country Playhouse of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” was last night and we were lucky enough to be there.  It was a poignant and persuasive reminder that this nation is a nation of immigrants.   

It took a Jewish immigrant from Russia to write such classics as “God bless America “and “White Christmas” two of the top selling pieces of music of all time.

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life having written not only the Book for this production, but he acts, sings, and as an accomplished concert pianist, accompanies himself.  It is a one man theatrical triumph with a beautiful set (a representation of Berlin's New York City Beekman Place apartment) and lighting by the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve attended performances for more than 40 years during the summers..


In addition to those two classics previously mentioned, Felder’s bio-musical tells Berlin’s story in a score of songs, including “Alexander's Ragtime Band",” My Wife's Gone to the Country - Hooray! Hooray!” (Seriously, Berlin could make up a song just about anything and Felder engages the audience with this one, allowing us to sing the “Hooray! Horray! refrain), ”Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, “What’ll I Do?”, “Blue Skies”, “Say It Isn’t So”,”Puttin’ On the Ritz”, “Supper Time” (a song about racial violence, sung by Ethel Waters) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from one of his most memorable and enduring Broadway hit musicals, Annie Get Your Gun (which he was enlisted to write at the last moment by the Gershwin Brothers as the intended composer, Jerome Kern, had died).  Incidentally, Felder does a great Ethel Merman imitation!

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life in chronological order starting with his birth somewhere in the Russian empire, his family’s escape from the Russian pogroms and their arrival at Ellis Island when was only five years old, and his beginnings in music as a singing waiter.   

He had two marriages, his first wife dying soon after their marriage, and his second from one of the wealthiest families in America -- a marriage to which her family of course strongly objected.  He lost his only son in his infancy and had three daughters.  These facts are woven into the incredible musical accomplishments of his life.   

The evening is further enhanced thanks to the astute direction of Trevor Hay who cleverly embeds scenes from movies, still photographs and other emotionally relevant images and sounds on a large “mirror” and wall behind Felder.

But foremost is Felder’s spirited and talented portrayal of Berlin – in song, in piano performance, and acting, capturing the essence of the man and an era, underscoring the importance of Berlin to the Great American Songbook.  Indeed, as Jerome Kern said “he IS American music.”

Remarkably, his composition and performance abilities were all self-taught.  He wrote all his songs in F Sharp and they had to be transposed for most performances.  It is a most unlikely story, the immigrant songwriter who couldn’t read music and ultimately wrote some of the most iconic American songs.  Felder’s story emphasizes his contributions to both the WW I and WW II war efforts.  Simply put, he loved America!  

Berlin’s times, of course, had its own societal afflictions and horrors, and except for a few brief moments here and there, referring to the depression, and racial segregation and prejudice, and a little about anti-Semitism from his father in law, Felder mostly avoids those issues.  But this is meant to be more of a “feel good” bio-musical, and the author/performer sticks to his mission.

Felder’s ability to tell this story as an integrated musical performance has, I think, matured over the years.  About 15 years ago we saw him perform his first bio-musical Gershwin Alone at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach which ironically has now been transformed into the home that Dramaworks now occupies.  We loved that show as well, but I recall it was not so much a biographically integrated theatre piece as this one of Berlin as it was more reliant on Felder’s considerable talent as a concert pianist.  His Irving Berlin show tells the life story seamlessly through his acting, singing, and playing.  In other words, it meets the test of the modern Broadway musical although only one person, but, oh, what a remarkably talented person he is.

The thousands of songs Berlin wrote during his long career, which included more than a score of Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals tapped into feelings and tunes that appealed to his generation and succeeding ones, and Felder frequently engages the audience to sing along.  As he said after the show in a casual Q & A, there are basically three players in his piece, he, the piano and the audience.

After more than 1-1/2 hours without intermission and a standing ovation, he still had the enthusiasm and energy to spend another half hour with the audience amusingly fielding questions.  It was like talking to your best friend, but one with exceptional gifts.

We look forward to his future works, including a new play featuring the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Sign us up!

And so after such a satisfying evening we followed the winding roads of Westport back to our boat as a thunderstorm was gathering in the west.  Luckily, we beat it “home.”


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cagney!


One of the admirable qualities about local theatre in South Florida, aside from the usual touring revivals of classic musicals and plays, is that some will take chances on innovative new productions. I’m referring in particular to original productions offered by The Florida Stage in Manalapan and Dramaworks in West Palm Beach over the years. Yesterday we saw such a work -- CAGNEY! -- a world premiere at Florida Stage.

I was wondering how the life story of the famed Jimmy Cagney could be carried off as a musical and the answer is the passion and commitment of one man, Robert Creighton, the lead actor, who conceived the work, and wrote the music and lyrics along with Christopher McGovern. Creighton is also a dead ringer for Cagney and Ann and I were taken in by the play and his inspired performance. In fact we felt as if Creighton was channeling Cagney himself.

It is the rare creative genius who can bring it all together – the vision, the ability to write music and lyrics, and then to act, sing, and dance as well. Creighton is one of a handful of unique actors able to create such a work as CAGNEY! He joins Hershey Felder who was brilliant in bringing GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE to life, which we were fortunate to see at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach several years ago. It ultimately made its way to Broadway, and Felder was actor, pianist, playwright and arranger. (Believe me, as an amateur pianist I have a special appreciation for Gershwin and the skill needed to do justice to his music which embodies elements of jazz, ragtime, and classical.) No one could have accomplished that better than Felder, as no one could have created such a successful, moving musical on Cagney other than Creighton.

My Uncle Phil had a summer home in Stanfordville, New York where I used to spend time as a kid and Cagney bought a farm there in the mid 1950’s, one that we frequently drove by, usually trying to catch a glimpse of the great actor, but Cagney kept to himself and was rarely seen in the area. CAGNEY! reminded me of those days and roused my interest in learning more about his life. Wikipedia has a good detailed write up and after reading the entry, I am astonished by the musical’s level of detail and accuracy.

But most impressive is CAGNEY! as a musical itself. This is not a little revue with some nice song and dance numbers. On a smaller stage it follows the principles of the great musicals of our times. The story line, songs and the chorography are woven together with one element advancing the other. We never felt that we were being “performed to” but, instead, brought into the action and moved every step along the way. The entire cast was outstanding, obviously being inspired by Creighton as well.

It also follows the traditions of excellence from the Great American Songbook with witty lyrics sometimes reminiscent of Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin, seamlessly woven into the music, appropriate for the era and the major themes of work. They brought out the tensions between Cagney and Jack Warner, Cagney’s bulldog convictions, his devotion to his mother and his wife, and the accusation of his being a Communist sympathizer, an irony not lost by Creighton’s depiction of Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I hope that, as with Felder’s work, CAGNEY! will find its way to a larger audience perhaps on Broadway. But my concern, after my generation dies away, is that there will be succeeding generations who care enough to preserve the memory of people such as James Cagney and, equally important, dedicated to carrying on the traditions of the Great American Songbook. Creighton’s musical, not to mention his performance, accomplishes just that and I can think of no greater compliment.

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