Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Hershey Felder, dubbed by critics as a “one-man cottage industry,” tackles his latest subject, Irving Berlin, with the same mix of music and lyrical historical storytelling audiences familiar with his representations of George Gershwin and Frederic Chopin would expect.
One man, a piano, and stories of a time gone by create the perfect nostalgic backdrop for the holiday season. What stands out is not Felder’s mastery of the piano. His talent is obvious. He moves from raucous radio hits like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to sentimental ballads like “Always” without flinching. It’s his mastery of understanding the man through the minutiae of anecdote that propels Felder’s art far beyond simple biography.
Sure, Irving Berlin is the greatest American composer in the history of blah, blah blah. Anyone with Google access and five minutes can quantify the man’s accomplishments. Felder goes beyond chronicling accomplishment to qualify the artist’s soul. More importantly, why a dead composer from a time gone by matters today.
Immigrants forced from their homeland by religious intolerance. A son who embraces the hope of a new country through a life of patriotic service. A self-made man forced to contend with antiquated class prejudice to win true love. A young family paddling to keep their heads above water while the world around them crumbles under the burden of war and financial collapse. It’s all there in the near two-hour show, and it’s all too familiar.
The social history lesson isn’t all we get. Felder also takes a stab at a dilemma many artists in the 21st Century face: how to stay relevant amid game-changing technological invention and subsequent audience expectations. If Berlin’s story offers an answer, it’s to stay true to what you love, embrace the challenges, and when all else fails, channel your feelings where they belong: your art.
We get a glimpse into the personal inspiration behind many of Berlin’s hits, like “God Bless America,” “Blue Skies,” and “White Christmas,” which Felder invites the audience to sing along with as he does a few other tunes.
The stage design is reminiscent of a storybook living room and remains consistent throughout. Armoire, Victorian-era chairs, an illuminated Christmas tree, and — of course — a grand piano, anchor the set. Yet the walls and picture frame above a mantled fireplace chronicle progression.
Video clips wash the backdrop and usher in era after era as Felder tells Berlin’s story. The juxtaposition of progress amid consistency is strategically thematic. So, too, is the wheelchair that sits downstage like an albatross of mortality. Felder’s clever use of props to personify Berlin and his loved one is elegant and true to life.
Times may change, yet the human need to immortalize love remains the same. Whether it’s trinkets that adorn our homes or Christmas songs we still know every word to, there will always be ties that bind one generation to the next.