While exiting Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, amidst an enthusiastic throng of theatergoers who attended Hershey Felder’s portrayal of America’s iconic songwriter, Irving Berlin, a man exclaimed, “Omigod, I thought I was watching Irving Berlin. He [Felder] seemed to become him [Berlin]. It’s as though he channeled him!”
Others walked out with a lilt to their step, humming “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and other Berlin favorite American Songbook tunes.
Whether they were overwhelmed with treasured memories, felt lighthearted after Felder’s sing-alongs or his brilliant one-man biographic portrayal of America’s greatest songwriter, the crowd spilled into Tremont Street, transfixed,save one woman. She cracked, “His hair didn’t look real!”
The rest of us, who have seen this award-winning concert pianist-performer-playwright-composer’s uncanny portrayals of Maestro Leonard Bernstein; classical composer Frederic Chopin; America’s innovative songwriter, George Gershwin; President Abraham Lincoln, and others, Felder continuously amazes us with his spellbinding performances.
Felder doesn’t merely portray great men. He researches, writes the scripts, co-designs the elegant sets, selects his costumes, arranges and selects projected biographical photos, memorabilia, film clips, poignant geographic sites and more. He also narrates and portrays all satellite individuals, while brilliantly accompanying himself on the piano.
Did I say he leads sing-alongs and maintains eye contact with theatergoers throughout his performances, making everyone feel like he/she is engaged in one-on-one conversations with him?
The result, this time, in “Irving Berlin,” (with special help from co-set designer Trevor Hay, lighting designer Richard Norwood, projection designer Andrew Wilder and sound designer Erik Carstensen), is electrifying, elucidating, and exciting.
At the outset, Felder stands near an empty wheelchair, portraying a younger version of Berlin, talking with his 101-year-old self, before his death Sept. 22,1989. Felder’s sensitive stage portrait traces Berlin’s life from his birth, as Israel Isadore Baline, on May 11, 1888, in Czarist-ruled Belarus, Russia, to his family’s forced emigration from their homeland because of racist pogroms in 1893. They settled in New York City’s lower East Side. He explains Berlin’s father, Moses, was a cantor (religious singer-leader), who couldn’t find work because the neighborhood was overflowing with cantors, so Moses worked a menial job. Meanwhile the eight Baline siblings sold newspapers on the street.
Just before Berlin’s bar mitzvah, his father died of pneumonia, leaving the family to fend for themselves. Berlin left home at 14, sang on the streets and in clubs, He also was a singing waiter in NYC’s Chinatown, when he wrote his first published song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” capturing the public and publisher’s attention.
Although Berlin couldn’t read a note of music, (he only played on the black piano keys, Felder confides), his songs and lyrics captured Americans’ hearts. Berlin anglicized his professional name to Irving Berlin in 1907. He wisely bought the rights to all of his music.
Felder adds Berlin broke racial barriers by featuring African-American great Ethel Waters, singing soulful show tune, “Suppertime,” in 1933 musical play, “As Thousands Cheer”. Waters portrayed a woman whose husband had been lynched by a mob, mirroring that shameful historic era.
Felder seamlessly shifts from Berlin’s writing one hit after another, to his brief, tragic marriage in 1912 to young love, Dorothy Goetz, who died four months later, of typhoid; of Berlin’s enlisting in the US Army during the first World War as a songwriter, to compose rousing, patriotic tunes to boost soldiers’ and the public’s morale.
The prolific Berlin was mostly inspired by his immense love for this country and his constantly giving back, through his music, wartime fundraising efforts and huge donations to the US Army Relief and Boy and Girl Scouts of America . Ascribing to the popular razz-ma-tazz, ragtime music of the day, Berlin wrote hit tune, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and scribed “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” as a clarion call to soldiers, never meant for the public. It was later included in three Broadway shows.
Although many people don’t know the show’s oft-reprised song, “(I’ll Be Loving You) Always,” it touched me deeply. It was one of my mother’s favorite songs, which she sang frequently.
Felder also relates Berlin’s Broadway and Hollywood fame, his marriage to debutante Comstock Lode heiress Ellin Mackay, against her father Clarence Mackay’s wishes. The wealthy Christian disowned Ellin for marrying “that Jew”.
The couple’s happiness was marred by the birth and death of Berlin’s only son, Irving Jr., three weeks later, (Dec. 1-Dec. 25, 1928). Berlin says Ellin’s father broke his estrangement with Ellin and visited her, but ignored “the songwriter”.
The Berlins’ marriage flourished. They had three other children- daughters Mary Ellin, Linda Louise, and Elizabeth Irving.
He adds despite his (Berlin’s) Jewish roots, they always had a Christmas tree and decorative wreaths, in commemoration of baby Irving’s death to SIDS. He nostalgically was inspired to write beloved tune, “White Christmas”.
Felder doesn’t skip a musical or biographical beat, tracing Berlin’s meteoric rise, from Broadway, to owning his own theater, the Music Box; making five hit Hollywood movies; garnering several awards, honorary degrees, and his own star on the Hollywood Walk. He was also honored at iconic Carnegie Hall on his 100th birthday, but didn’t go.
I’d wager Felder’s trip through Berlin’s little-known life and career had the same effect on all theatergoers, evoking vivid memories. As Berlin reminds us, “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on”.
So does his legacy, vividly resurrected by Felder.
BOX INFO:East Coast premiere of one-act, one man, two-hour show, written and performed by Hershey Felder, appearing in an extended run, due to popular demand, through Aug. 2, at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston. Performances:July 21-23,28-30, at 7:30 p.m.; July 24,31, at 8 p.m.; July 25, Aug. 1, at 4,8 p.m.; July 26,Aug. 2, at 2 p.m. Tickets, $35-$85; group, student,senior discounts. Call 617-824-8400 or visit www.artsemerson.org.