“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”


Author: Alan Bresloff

Category: Theatre Reviews

Highly Recommended *****  

When one sees the name Hershey Felder attached to a production, one knows that they are in for an evening of entertainment and education. He is a man of great detail and when he either produces, directs or writes/produces and directs a production, we can count on perfection! Many of us were first introduced to this special talent back when he brought his “George Gershwin Alone” to town. This was the treasure that first introduced Chicago theater audiences to his brilliance of bringing a composer to life, and then some. Since that time, he has also done the same with  “Monsieur Chopin”, “Beethoven, As I Knew Him”, “Maestro Bernstein” and one that I have not witnessed “Franz Liszt in Musik”, each allowing us to learn about the men and their music as well as their lives.

And now, Irving Berlin! To be honest, this particular show is very much akin to the excitement that we felt when we first met Felder as Gershwin. Berlin, is after all, very much like Gershwin in spirit and in what he brought to American music. Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American Music-he is American Music”, and this 90 minutes of sheer magic takes us into the depths of the man and his music. We learn about his family coming to America and the suffering they endured to survive here. We learn of his dropping out of school to start his own life and his leaving his family as a 6th grader. We learn how he was able to survive by being a singing waiter and how he began to write songs, first for the bars, then for the shows. We also learn about his work in the Musical Theater and the work he did for Flo Ziegfeld’s “Follies”.

Felder creates the persona of this man, as he has done in the past, with the feeling and emotion of the man himself. One of the amazing parts of watching this actor/performer do his thing is the transformation of Felder into the character he is bringing to life. We can feel the heart and soul of the man and we watch him age, right before our very eyes. Felder has pieced together the book in order to tell us the story from the family itself, and of course using the lyrics and music of one special immigrant who became one of the greatest Americans ever, Irving Berlin. Directed by Trevor Hay, who uses the intimate space of The Royal George Theatre to perfection, on a set that was designed by both he and Felder (what else is new, I would be surprised to learn that Felder was not the one who painted the set).

At the center of the stage is Felder’s piano. When he does a play, it is a one man/one piano play and that is what makes it sparkle. During the story telling which is smooth as silk and aided by some great old videos and photos from the Berlin family. I told you there was history involved and education! In the story we learn of his first wife and her death. The second marriage to the socialite who was not Jewish, and who inspired the man to write many of his famous songs. We learn of his children, the daughters who he adored and the son, who passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Felder brings magic to his piano playing and his vocal ability. He even gets the audience to join in for some of the most memorable of songs. Berlin had 232 top-ten hits and 25 number one songs. How is that for a record? “Always”, “Alexander’s Rag Time Band”, “How Deep is the Ocean?”, “Heat Wave”, “What’ll I Do?”, scores from “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Easter Parade” “White Christmas” and “Holiday Inn”. Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Ethel Waters, Donald O’Connor and many more were singers of his songs. Those who recall Kate Smith and his “God Bless America” will find out that this particular song was meant for something else- a different time and a different place.

Watching Felder work his magic is something special. This man, if you passed him on the street would be, for the most part unrecognizable, but when he gets into wig and costume, he becomes the person he is playing. In this case, you will only see Irving Berlin. You will fall in love with the man and his music. You will laugh with the man and at the end, when this beautiful story comes to an end, a tear or two will be found in your eyes. It is well worth the trip down Felder’s memory lane. This is a limited production that will only be here through December 6th with performances as follows:
Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.
Thursdays  at 7:30 p.m.
Fridays  at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m.
All Tickets are $60 and can be purchased at the box office , by phone at 312-988-9000or online at www.ticketmaster.com

The Royal George Theater is located at  1641 N. Halsted Street. Valet parking is available as well as street parking in the area (some metered, some not) and there is the Steppenwolf Garage directly across the street.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”

I would love to hear from those of you who have seen Gershwin and then this, to see how you feel about which is the stronger of the two. Just my curious nature, I guess. To see what else is happening at The Royal George, visit www.royalgeorgetheatre.com