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.”