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Irresistible 'Irving Berlin' — It's not about genius, it's about endurance

Working late into the night, Berlin wrote songs that continue to be part of our cultural heritage

The Arizona Theatre Company is the latest landing zone for the irresistible “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.” This presentation is part of Felder’s national tour of the show, which included a deservedly sold-out premiere run at the prestigious Geffen Theatre in LA, and from Tucson will move on to Palm Springs, Phoenix and Chicago.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is a solid winner for a number of reasons.

A one-man show, especially a jukebox musical focused on a single composer, has inherent limitations, though the form is particularly popular among producers for economic reasons. “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” of course, has two key tools to overcome these challenges. The first is Berlin’s rich song catalog, featuring classics such as “Blue Skies,” “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.”

The second is Hershey Felder himself, a skillful playwright and talented actor and musician, who throws himself into a role he wrote for himself, thus able to play to his strengths. Felder has created and toured here before with successful homages to George Gershwin, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.

Tech components mesh perfectly

Other components that make this all work so well are the outstanding production values. The set by is cozy and suitably retro. The sound (Eric Carstensen) throughout was perfect: clear, natural, and at an ideal volume. Lighting, (Richard Norwood) kaleidoscope to match the shifting moods, included evocative projected scenery (Andrew Wilder) and clips of some of the most famous movie scenes and recordings featuring Berlin’s tuneful compositions, enhancing the experience and expanding the range of the play beyond the stage to our deeper memories.

Felder’s superbly crafted script takes full advantage of his considerable thespian skills, allowing him to slip in and out of characters to create dialogues. The play opens with a young Irving Berlin chiding his older self, represented by an empty wheelchair (vacant furniture is a motif in the show). The composer lived to 101 and spent much of his later years out of the public eye, after the failure of his 1962 production, “Mr. President,” when Berlin was 74 and styles were changing radically.

An invitation to learn the story behind the songs

The young Berlin presents the audience as carolers singing “White Christmas” outside his New York City apartment, whom he invites in. Felder’s Berlin then narrates his life story, from anti-Semitic Tsarist Russia to Ellis Island, the Lower East Side and his long, successful career. The show has a confessional tone as we learn of the heartbreak behind some of the songs, such as the death of his first wife, Dorothy, from typhoid, following their honeymoon in Cuba, resulting in his first ballad. He introduces his second wife, Ellin, a wealthy heiress whose family disdained him as lower class, but whose father was suddenly not above borrowing money from the well-off composer after being wiped out in the Great Depression. Madly in love with each other, Irving and Ellin endure the death of their infant son on Christmas Day, forever darkening that holiday. He will never hear “White Christmas” quite the same again.

Fortunately for everyone, Berlin’s sole vice was that he was a workaholic, typically working late into the night to churn out two or three finished songs a week, eventually amassing an extraordinary portfolio of an estimated 1,500 songs — all the more amazing for the sheer number that have become cross-generational classics. Including his first splash, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911, 25 of his songs became number one hits in their day. He also wrote musicals for Broadway and Hollywood, racking up eight Academy Award nominations.

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More than 50 years of hits

Felder gives us plenty of these songs, mostly following the narrative in chronological order. A much better piano player than Berlin (who could only play in one key and used transcribers to actually annotate his work), Felder frequently invites the audience to join in on the songs – we are after all, a gaggle of visiting carolers. (Projected lyrics might have been helpful for some on lesser, but recognizable tunes, but that would have undercut the gravitas of the Berlin catalog – these are, after all, songs that anyone familiar with the canon of American music should know.) Though not quite a hootenanny, a communal feeling does arise in the public sharing of these beautifully crafted songs and the fond associations so many have with them.

(Felder will also present a special sing-along show of the Great American Songbook, from Gershwin to Sondheim on Saturday, Oct. 3 at 1 pm at the Temple for Music and Arts.)

Felder gives “Irving Berlin” his all, creating his array of side characters, ranging from a whining nebbish to a preening general, with cameos from Rudy Vallee, Ethel Merman and Elvis Presley, among others. His skill is such that you not only believe him as Berlin, but also as the ancillary cast that broaden the story. He alters his singing voice for these characters, while giving his own throaty tenor an old-timey vibrato, authentically replicating the styles of the '30s and '40s.  

That the audience for this show, steeped in nostalgia for a simpler, more heroic era, would skew older, even for an Arizona Theatre Company crowd, is obvious. Sadly, on opening night, there were still a disconcerting number of empty seats at the Temple of Music and Art, even allowing for the traditional half-price rush. Hopefully, the show will transcend the constraints of time, demographics and the economy to find a more robust audience, curious for an exquisite introduction to the richness of our musical past. It will be well worth the effort.

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Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at Arizona Theatre Company

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If you go

  • What: “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” presented by the Arizona Theatre Company
  • Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave., through Oct. 4.
  • When: Tuesdays through Sundays. Matinee and evening schedules vary. Check online for specific times.
  • Tickets: Reserved seats are $42 - $68. Half-price rush tickets available beginning one hour before curtain. Special $10 tickets available for Tuesday, Sept. 29 only. Box office at 622-2823 or online at http://www.arizonatheatre.org/tickets