THEATER REVIEW: Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin @ Cleveland Play House by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 6/24

I think I met Irving Berlin last night. Well, that’s what it felt like after Hershey Felder channelled the great songwriter to a happy crowd at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theater. Felder as Berlin shared a well-presented selection of the composer’s greatest hits. (The prolific Berlin wrote over 1,000 songs during a career that spanned both World Wars, the Depression, FDR, JFK and beyond, so there’s no attempt to be comprehensive, but the musical numbers chosen did evoke their eras.)

When the show opens, we see Berlin as an old man in a wheelchair (he died at 101 in 1988). Suddenly, years drop off, he stands up and starts telling his story. All he remembers of Russia was when he was five years old, hiding and watching his house burn down. His Jewish family emigrated to the United States and settled in New York (the city he never left) and began to create a new life.

As it turned out, the youngster was a natural musician with a gift for writing melody and lyrics. He made a good living (he learned early to keep the rights to everything forever) composing vaudeville ditties such as “My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)” (1907) before moving on to fame and fortune writing musicals. He was a major figure in what became fondly remembered as the Golden Era of Musicals (i.e. the 1940s and 1950s) with shows such as Holiday Inn, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. Almost as a side job he also wrote for Hollywood films (including the musical White Christmas). Felder offers short clips with Fred Astaire dancing and singing Berlin’s music.

It’s almost easier to say what popular song from those years isn’t by Irving Berlin than to say what is. His hit songs include “White Christmas” (of course), “Puttin on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Heat Wave,” “Blue Skies,” “Always” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” And, of course, “God Bless America” made famous by Kate Smith in 1938.

Felder, who accompanies himself on the piano for most songs, inserts clips and quips to keep things moving briskly along, but be warned, there’s no intermission and it gets long — music-packed, but long. The night I went, he asked for audience questions after the show — questions which proved amusing (“What do you think of critics?”) and informative (“What’s next?”).

Felder, who has already done (and still does) musical/theatrical recreations such as this one that focus on great composers such as Beethoven, Gershwin and Chopin, answered the last question by playing a Debussy Arabesque.

BOTTOM LINE: Fun time for a summer evening.  It’s either a history lesson or a stroll down memory lane or both. Personally, it was a pleasure to remember (and even sing along — well, he invited us to at one point) the songs that first made a music theater junkie out of me. And, by the way, Thu 6/24 @ 6:30pm there will be an extra show: One of Felder’s Great American Songbook/Sing-along performances where the audience joins in all the time.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

 

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