Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

 

 

 

“The Greatest Songwriter that has ever lived.” (George Gershwin)

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.

(Jerome Kern)

 

Hershey Felder

 

 

by Sandi Durell

 

A young immigrant boy from a shtetel in Russia (later known as Belarus) makes his way to America with his parents and siblings at the age of five in 1893 to live on the Lower East Side in abject poverty and to become the greatest songwriter in our history. And so the story begins as Hershey Felder, consummate concert pianist, actor, singer and writer assumes the character of Berlin in this absorbing one hour, 45 minute musical one man show at 59e59 Theaters.

 

You may not get to hear every one of your favorite Berlin tunes (he wrote approximately 1500 songs, including scores for 20 Broadway shows and 15 Hollywood films) but I can guarantee you’ll kvell big time to the ones you do hear, along with the extraordinary life of the man who wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911 – actually a march, not ragtime, a first major international hit that sparked a major dance craze as shoulders rose and fell, heels started rocking – a precursor to American jazz).

 

 

The family poor and needing money (his papa a Cantor, with not too many jobs available, his mama a midwife), little Irving became a newspaper boy at the age of 8, left school at 13 and began singing in Chinatown (Pelham Café), teaching himself to play piano – never learning to read music, played in F# (the black keys). His talent and career just zoomed and, cleverly, Berlin made sure to own the rights to all the songs he wrote, along with an interest in the Music Box Theater created with Sam Harris in 1921 when it was built.

 

Quickly, his writing style morphed from ragtime to romantic love songs, saying “it’s the lyrics that makes a song a hit, although the tune, of course, is what makes it last.” When he wrote “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” at the behest of Florenz Ziegfeld, it put the Follies on the map, as well as Berlin.

 

Berlin was a patriotic man, caring deeply for America and when he was drafted into the Army in 1917, stationed in Yaphank, L.I., wrote a musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank, containing the hit “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” the revue winding up on Broadway.

 

 

Felder, on the big beautiful Steinway, interpolates every nuance, and mannerism in song and style of the great Berlin, drawing his audience into the fold.

 

Berlin’s first marriage to Dorothy Goetz ended after six months when she tragically died of typhoid fever contracted on their honeymoon in Havana, Berlin expressing his grief in his first ballad, “When I Lost You.”

 

Love, loss and longing “What’ll I Do” originally recorded by Paul Whiteman in 1924, went on to greatness for Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra as well. It was this song that brought him and the love of his life Ellin Mackay, wealthy socialite daughter of Clarence Mackay together – she referring to the song as “What Shall I Do” – the two soon eloping, Mr. Mackay disowning his daughter. After all . . . a Christian and a Jew? Berlin wrote “Always” for Ellin when he fell in love with her, giving her the rights to the song in case anything should go awry with their marriage.

 

The stories abound, the miracles and melodies of “Blue Skies” – a gift when his first daughter was born;. “God Bless America” (1938), an expression of Berlin’s deep gratitude to America, and “White Christmas” (1942, Holiday Inn) gave the audience at 59e59 a chance to sing along, which they did lovingly.

 

Irving Berlin founded ASCAP, was an Academy Award Winner, an American institution and a classic rags to riches story. His songs were simple and spoke to everyday life and feelings. He wrote tirelessly, staying up into the wee small hours to complete a project.

 

Irving Berlin

 

Each hit song presented another opportunity for the brilliant Hershey Felder to sing, play and portray, relating more emotional storyline – Berlin’s great friendship with Fred Astaire (“Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek”); finding Ethel Waters in a Harlem nightclub (“Supper Time”) and creating Ethel Merman’s trademark “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

 

With a book by Hershey Felder, along with his personal creative scenic design – – the warmth of Christmas, the importance of family, the joys and sorrows, including the last days of Berlin’s life passing on at 101 years of age – –  all are taken into account. Projections of film and photos throughout by Brian McMullen enhance the stories and music with Richard Norwood’s subtle lighting design and Erik Carstensen’s sound.

 

This is a show for anyone who loves the Great American Songbook, cleverly and smartly constructed by the talented Hershey Felder with direction by the devoted hand of Trevor Hay.

 

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin in Theater A at 59e59 Theaters continues thru October 28.

 

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