By Yuko Kurahashi
Hershey Felder’s Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin (directed by Trevor Hay) opened at the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage on December 22, 2017.
One of the pleasures of attending Felder’s shows (in which he portrays world-renowned composers such as Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Bernstein) is his unique “story-telling” with the composer’s music that illuminates the relationship between his music and life. A skillful actor, Felder entertains his audience with his personification of the composer and other characters. By the end of the show, his audiences, through key events in the composer’s life, “get to know” a human being, not just a composer.
The set (scenic designer, Felder; lighting designer, Richard Norwood) is a luxurious room with a grand piano that reflects a Christmas theme with a decorated tree, poinsettias, as well as falling snow seen through two windows. This suggests Berlin’s song “White Christmas,” first broadcast on December 25, 1941. On the back wall is a screen which looks like a picture frame. This “frame” is used to project images related to the story (projection designers, Christopher Ash and Lawrence Seifert).
As he does with his other music shows, he takes the audience back to the composer’s childhood (historical and biographical researcher, Meghan Maiya). Berlin emigrated from Russia to the United States with his family in 1893 when he was five years old. Felder says that Berlin’s talent in music came from his father who was a cantor in a synagogue in a village in Belarus. Felder’s account of Berlin’s father’s life in the United States—he could not find a job as a cantor so he took any jobs available—adds a historical perspective to the story of Berlin.
Felder weaves key events and music pieces into love and losses in Berlin’s life. His meager living as a “singer” in neighborhood saloons and then his employment as a “singing waiter” at Pelham Café in Chinatown earned him his first piece “Marie from Sunny Italy” and his name “Irving Berlin.” One of his losses was the death of his infant son on December 25th, 1928. Felder, on his piano, narrates how Berlin’s despair was transformed into fuel to write many songs of love and compassion, including “White Christmas.”
In order to demonstrate the “history” around some of Berlin’s pieces, Felder plays multiple “characters” in Berlin’s life. Through this role-playing, Felder illuminates the circumstances in which Berlin came up with such popular pieces as “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!,” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “Always,” and “Count Your Blessings.” Some episodes are connected to his personal life while some exist in the historical, social, and cultural fabric of the time. Felder’s show is animated by his singing, playing the piano, photos and film clips, and recordings of his music (sound designer, Erik Carstensen).
To add a festive spirit, Felder invites the audience to join in singing some parts of the songs, including “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!,” “White Christmas,” and “God Bless America.”
Felder, as he has done in his other shows, makes his work relevant to contemporary society and its climate. One of his losses in his later years—the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, several month after a flop of his musical Mr. President—leads to his deep depression. Felder, as Berlin, asks to himself: “What happened to this beautiful country?”
Felder portrays the twilight of Berlin’s life through changes of posture and voice, showing both the physical and spiritual decline of the composer. With a feeble voice, Felder, as Berlin, laments the changes in modern music, including arbitrary arrangements and adaptations of his music.
Felder has created and performed a number of original “story-telling” pieces. In the past at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Felder presented Maestro, a show about Leonard Bernstein’s life, and Our Great Tchaikovsky. His other works include George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin, Beethoven, Franz Liszt in Musik, and Lincoln: An American Story. Felder also adapted and directed Mona Golabek’s The Pianist of Willesden Lane.