By Karen Isaacs
Have you ever heard the song “Marie from Sunny Italy” How about “My Wife’s Going to the Country”?
Still “No”? Let’s add in “Blue Skies” and “What’ll I Do”? If you still need a clue – who wrote “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade” and “God, Bless America?
You can hear these songs and plenty more at Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin now at Westport Country Playhouse through Aug. 3.
Felder has created a niche for himself with one person shows dedicated to the life and works of a specific composer. His previous shows have focused on Chopin, Beethoven, Gershwin and Tchaikovsky among others.
They work because Felder is an accomplished pianist and a good actor. If you enjoy music, these are always enjoyable entertainments and you may learn something as well.
Irving Berlin’s story is a classic tale of a young boy achieving the American Dream. He arrived with his family from Belarus in the late 19th century as just a child whose town had been destroyed in a pogrom. Like many Jewish immigrants (his father was a canter) the family crammed into a three room flat on the lower East Side and even took in a border to help make ends meet. As a child, he worked selling papers for a penny each to help with family expenses; as a teenager he began writing songs and soon he had created hits songs for many of the top vaudeville acts.
Those first two songs mentioned above were examples of hit songs.
But Berlin also had a head for business and by the age of thirty, he had purchased the rights to all his old songs. He set up his own music publishing company. After serving in WWI (he enlisted at the age of 30) and creating the all-soldier Broadway revue Yip, Yip Yaphank which featured the song “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” he returned to Broadway and with Jed Harris, bought a theater in which to stage his musical reviews.
The challenge that Felder faces in creating these one-man shows is how to frame them. How do you set up a reason for reviewing the life and works of a composer? It is here that the Berlin shows falters. The show opens with Felder as Berlin in perhaps his 40s speaking to an empty wheelchair in which the elderly Berlin sat. The younger incarnation of Berlin, tells the chair that while Berlin now is a bitter old man, he wants to go back to his younger, more optimistic self.
Thus we begin going back to the burning of the village and the arrival in America. The frame seems forced and not truly necessary.
Felder excels in telling the story of Berlin’s two major romances. His first wife tragically died a few months after their wedding for typhoid she got while on their honeymoon in Cuba.
His second wife, to whom he was married for 62 years, was the daughter of a very wealthy business man. Her family strongly opposed her marriage to this “Jewish singing waiter” and it wasn’t until her father lost his fortune in the Depression that any reconciliation occurred. Of their four children, one died at a young age, possibly from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Felder brings in the circumstances around the writing of “White Christmas” – Berlin was sitting by the pool in LA, “God Bless America” and more. Like many composers, his first experience in Hollywood was a flop, but his second was much more successful writing the scores for a number of Fred Astaire movies among others.
Berlin was bitter that his last Broadway musical, Mr. President was panned by the critics and closed relatively quickly after just 256 performances. He seemed to blame its failure on rock ‘n’ roll; in reality the show wasn’t’ very good either in book or music. Plus some of the casting was problematic.
But Berlin became a recluse and was known to turn down requests to use his songs – famously in an Oscar ceremony opening number. He died at home in 1989 at 101.
Felder captures Berlin’s look – the slick black hair and the dark rimmed glasses. He plays and sings the songs well and engages the audience in singing along. Some of these songs are so well known, it is impossible not to hum along with him. He is a much better pianist than Berlin was; Berlin had transcriptions write down his tunes which he hummed to them and could only play the piano in one key.
Felder always has interesting and meaningful sets. In this case it is a replica of Berlin’s home on Beekman Place in NYC. (The building is home to a diplomatic mission to the UN which is nearby.). So we see a drawing room complete with piano, chairs and photos. The back wall with a fireplace is used to project various images that help tell the story.
If you are an Irving Berlin fan or just a fan of the classic Hollywood and Broadway tunes, you will have a great time at the show.