After a while one can really get to believe Hershey Felder is the real Irving Berlin in his extraordinary performance that is among the best of one-person shows I have seen over the years. He manages to look enough like Berlin to make the leap, and he magnetically draws an audience into the autobiographical story, illustrated by playing Berlin songs at the piano as well as singing. In the narrative, written by Felder, the songs are matched to aspects of Berlin’s life and insight is provided into how they were created. Felder casts a spell as he becomes the great, prolific composer who came here as a poor Jewish immigrant and became an American icon in the music world.
The production is beautifully directed by Trevor Hay, with the scenic design for Berlin’s apartment by Felder, including a large picture frame on the wall into which various images are projected to illustrate moments of Berlin’s life and the use of his music. There are scenes of Fred Astaire dancing to Berlin’s hit movie numbers. Everything combines into a dramatic unity that highlights Felder’s compelling acting.
The composer’s life is covered from the family escape from a pogrom in Russia and immigration to the United States to the composer’s death at 101 in 1989. The life of the composer unfolds in the context of what was happening in America and the world, including World Wars I and II, and how Berlin contributed his music and show biz know-how, as with his musical “This is the Army.”
Throughout Felder gives us a barrage of songs, often tied to significant parts of Berlin's life journey, and he makes it all sparkle, whether with intimate numbers like “Always” and “Count Your Blessings” or the lively “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”
Of course there is “White Christmas,” one of the most popular songs of all time, and “God Bless America,” another huge contribution. When he sings “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Felder does an amusing on-target impression of what he calls the “foghorn” voice of Ethel Merman. Berlin wrote so many hits that Felder has to use a medley at one point in order to pack more into the performance.
The recounting of Berlin’s life contains the ups and downs. An early marriage in 1912 to Dorothy Goetz ended tragically with the death of his wife from typhoid fever. When he falls in love with heiress Ellen Mackay, daughter of ultra-rich Clarence Mackay, who lives in an upscale society environment, her father is furious that his Catholic daughter would stoop to falling for a Jewish Immigrant dismissively known as a singing waiter from his early job days, and the press was having a field day over the romance. But love conquers all. They married in a private ceremony even in the face of her father cutting all ties with his daughter until later when the couple was in what would prove to be a 63-year marriage, with Ellen living until 1988.
Berlin and his wife lost a son in infancy but they also had three daughters. Berlin lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. But he had the foresight to buy back the rights to his songs. Felder takes us through Berlin’s experiences in Hollywood and on Broadway, always with generous humor and sometimes with touches of irony. He also gets the audience to sing along at times, with a strong response resulting from succumbing to Felder’s charm.
And what songs we get along with the anecdotes, such as “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “What’ll I Do?” and “Blue Skies.” Felder is a whiz at the piano, and also keeps proving to be a fine actor as he builds a character and connects with his audience.
How much of the linking of anecdotes to particular songs may be biographically accurate is beside the point. The weaving of the material works so well dramatically that the result is consistently enchanting through 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission. Felder has been known for re-recreating the lives of other important artists. His Irving Berlin is certainly a high point. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed September 6, 2018.