Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
In his one-man revue HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN, Felder pays loving homage to the famed composer who worked his way from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to Hollywood and beyond. This revue showcases a number of Berlin’s greatest hits, including “I’ll Be Loving You Always,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and, of course, that ubiquitous holiday tune “White Christmas,” interspersed with biographical details about the composer’s life and career. Felder’s show allows audiences to revel in Berlin’s magnificent songs, many of which paved the way for the development of the American musical (though the rise of that art form ultimately posed a challenge for Berlin’s own career). The result is pleasant and entertaining, with some surprisingly touching insights into Berlin’s life—one of great success and acclaim but not without significant personal tragedy and, as a Jewish immigrant from Russia, discrimination.
Under the direction of Trevor Hay, Felder leads the way with charm. He is certainly a talented vocalist and pianist and does great service to Berlin’s beautiful melodies, launching into the musical numbers with aplomb. This revue is at its best when Felder really dives into Berlin’s music, particularly for the joyful tunes—his take on “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” is a highlight. Felder also lends his vocal talents to the more somber numbers, as when he nails the haunting number “Suppertime,” originally written for black vaudeville singer Ethel Waters as part of Berlin’s 1933 revue AS THOUSANDS CHEER. Felder has a deep passion for Berlin’s song catalog—and it clearly shows.
Felder’s book occasionally lets the exposition get in the way of Berlin’s glorious music. In the service of storytelling, he sometimes intersperses Berlin’s tunes with bits of background narrative—as with the famous “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—when I really wanted to just hear the song, well, sing for itself. The script provides many interesting details about Berlin’s life, but I wanted to hear the musical numbers uninterrupted.
The revue also sometimes feels overly saccharine. At many points, Felder invites the audience to sing the chorus of Berlin’s most famous songs (which they knew and delivered without pause, as many there were several decades older than this audience member). While it’s an endearing choice, I longed to hear Felder deliver those famous lyrics himself. With big hits like “God Bless America” and “White Christmas,” I felt like Felder was delivering the joke but not the punchline when he gave those choruses over to the crowd. As he is giving a well-acted and vocally strong portrayal of Berlin, I wanted Felder to really take the reins of the show in those moments.
Felder and Hay co-designed the set, an opulent living room primed for Christmas time with a grand Steinway piano as the focal point. Richard Norwood’s lighting design echoes the tone of the musical numbers—I was particularly amused by the pleasant shade of mint green that filled the set when Felder sang “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from the show MISS LIBERTY. Lawrence Siefert and Andrew Wilder’s projection designs showcase photos of the real Irving Berlin and also effectively incorporate video clips that give audiences a sense of Berlin’s musical style. However, Felder’s use of objects to represent important figures in his life—as in the use of a chair to indicate Berlin’s wife of 62 years, Ellin Mackay, felt awkward. Certainly it’s a challenge to do a one-man-show that invariably has other important characters in the narrative, but that struck me as unnecessary. Felder’s acting gives us enough of a sense of the importance of family in Berlin’s life.
Felder’s expertly-delivered vocals and charming persona are the most compelling reasons to see this revue. HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN is an agreeable and tuneful theatrical experience, though ten minutes or so could have been shaved off the run time. Fans of Irving Berlin’s songbook—and those who appreciate the history of vaudeville, musical theater, and popular music in America—will find much to enjoy in Felder’s take on this iconic songwriter.
[add_single_eventon id=”920″ ev_uxval=”3″ ]