If you’ve seen one of Hershey Felder’s performances, you know they’re memorable. He’s been thrilling Chicago audiences for more than a decade with his one-man shows about composers showcasing his serious chops as a pianist.
When you leave the theater after seeing “George Gershwin Alone,” you can’t stop singing “Embraceable You.” After seeing “Maestro Bernstein,” the score of West Side Story plays in your head for days. In this case, after seeing Felder portray Irving Berlin, you hear “White Christmas” in a way you never could have imagined.
The story of a poor, young immigrant with chutzpah making it big in America has been done countless times, but if you think you know the story of Irving Berlin, the man behind so many American standards who lived to be 101, guess again.
This production has heart and humor.
It’s the story of a young busker-turned-singing waiter who eventually bounces back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood, penning 232 top ten songs and becoming pals with the likes of Fred Astaire.
Keep in mind, The Beatles had 34 top ten singles, Elvis Presley, who Berlin was NOT a fan of, had 36. The sheer volume of hits Berlin wrote and in some cases, pulled out of a trunk after abandoning them for years, is staggering.
On top of that, there’s a beautiful love story that will touch the heart of the most cynical theatre- goer.
His wife left her 180 servants and life of luxury behind to marry the man she loved, and they stayed married until her death at the age of 85.
Felder seamlessly integrates screen projections and clips from the Golden Age of Hollywood with his spectacular piano playing (and a giggle-worthy Ethel Merman tribute), to tell the story of a complex man who loved America and wanted to be a success.
That’s what makes this show a hit.
Surprisingly, Felder says this show wasn’t even his idea. “I never wanted to do Irving Berlin until I was pushed to do him. It was only then that I discovered what a genius he was. Actually, it was the director Gil Cates Sr. He told me that he encountered Berlin and that I absolutely needed to play him. That’s how the whole thing started,” says Felder.
And if you feel inspired to sing along, there’s opportunity for that, too. Felder points out, “It’s very much true to what Berlin wanted, and he wrote for the very people who sing.”
Understanding the origin of songs like “Blue Skies,” “God Bless America,” and “Always” inspires a whole new appreciation for Berlin’s status as the grandfather of the American songbook.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin runs at the Royal George Theatre through December sixth.