Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Sitting at a grand piano and surrounded by a twinkling Christmas tree and furniture, pictures, and relics recalling Irving Berlin's long life (all beautifully co-designed by the evening's star with Trevor Hay), Hershey Felder becomes Irving Berlin as a century of his life and of American history unfolds before us in songs and stories galore. Starting as a five-year-old escaping a Czar's pogrom in Tyumen, Russia, Mr. Felder as Berlin gives us a first-hand view of his journey across the turbulent Atlantic to the moment he sees Lady Liberty, a sight that affects him, his sense of patriotism, and his music for the rest of his life. We hear him as he buskers in the streets of the Bowery to earn pennies for his parents, as he graduates to be a singing waiter (a moniker that will stay with him for years in New York gossip headlines), and as he publishes his first song as a teenager in New York's Chinatown, "Marie from Sunny Italy." But at 23 when he publishes "Alexander's Ragtime Band" ("Funny thing, it was actually a march," we hear), Berlin's career begins a celestial journey of glorious hit after hit, with Irving Felder giving us both the background story and the song as sung by the master himself in a voice that has the 1920s, '30s, and '40s joyful intonations we now only hear through in recordings and films.
The insights we gain of Berlin are by the dozens as the evening progresses. Berlin's humor is delightful ("I can only play in one key, F# ... Black keys, they stand out"). We learn his songs came from his everyday experiences ("Every time I can turn a popular idea into a musical number, I win") and from the grief of a number of family deaths ("I don't like being alone, so the safest place for me to be is to stay in a song"). Songs become the gifts he gives to a bride ("Always") or to a baby daughter ("Blue Skies"), but as we listen to our on-stage Berlin croon such tunes, it is obvious they are actually gifts that keep giving to all of us.
When at the piano as Berlin, Mr. Felder's fingers fly lightly across the keyboard with speed and spark while his voice often floats in dreamy melodic ease on such tunes as "What'll I Do?" Rarely looking at the keys themselves, he instead keeps almost constant eye contact with his audience as if we are in fact in his living room visiting and chatting as friends. On occasion, our Berlin jumps from the stool and lovingly wanders over to an empty chair to interact with his wife, or enthusiastically runs to show us a picture or to tell us a funny story at stage's edge.
Some of the best moments of the evening are the many both familiar and less familiar people we get to meet who were big parts of Irving Berlin's career. From the distinct, back-throated singing of Al Jolson in the first-ever sound film (The Jazz Singer) to the blasting voice of the great Ethel Merman ("Like writing for a steamship fog horn"), Messieurs Felder and Berlin keep us in fascinated stitches as we hear songs sung in and by the voices of the famous. Sometimes supplemented by projected films of old, sometimes with our Berlin playing and singing along to recorded music, and often just becoming those voices himself, Mr. Felder walks us through a treasury full of those who sang Berlin's hits. Particularly touching is his rendition of the great Ethel Waters belting in passionate pain and then whispering in reflecting sadness, "Supper time ... and my man ain't coming home no more," a song from a 1933 Broadway musical when Berlin dared star a black woman on Broadway singing about her husband who had been lynched.
For all that has been revealed about the evening, the above is only a glimpse what Mr. Felder presents to the audience. Dozens of songs (some of which the audience is encouraged to sing themselves), anecdotes that change by the minute, and a parade of personalities who come to life on the stage fill the ninety minutes with what could be hours of entertainment in any other show. Supplemented by incredibly well-done projections and film clips by Andrew Wilder and Lawrence Siefert and by beautifully effective lighting design by Richard Norwood, Trevor Hay directs Mr. Felder's flow of almost one hundred years with seamless ease and perfection.
To be entertained while also learning so much history about the man behind the many songs that run in their entirety through any of our heads at the mere mention of a titlethat is a gift. As Berlin reveals to us at the end of the evening, "I wrote for you ... above all, for you." Thank you, Hershey Felder and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, for this gift.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continues through February 14, 2016, in production by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.