Hershey Felder is spending the holidays in La Jolla, and his fans will rejoice.
A master of one-person depictions of musicians – Mr. Felder has covered George Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, and Franz Liszt, most of which he has performed at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. His latest work focuses on Irving Berlin, and he’s brought it to the La Jolla Playhouse for a run through January 3.
By now, Mr. Felder is doing variations on a theme, but there’s enough different touches in the script and sophistication in the solo performance to keep long-timers coming back and perhaps bring their families as well.
Irving Berlin lived a good long life – he died in 1989 at age 101. His family came to New York from Belarus when he was five, and they lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Berlin published his first song when he was 19, and he never looked back. He was one of the most prolific and popular of the “Great American Songbook” writers, and the hits from the 1500 or so songs he wrote included “White Christmas,” “Happy Holiday,” and “The Easter Parade,” as well as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “God Bless America.”
Mr. Felder interacts with empty chairs, something that might be risky, given Clint Eastwood’s well-known experience with doing so at the 2012 Republican Convention
Mr. Felder’s book tells the Berlin story by emphasizing the facts of the composer’s life. The emotional content comes from highs and lows, and the highs are mostly births, while the lows are mostly deaths. If you’re looking for great insight into Berlin’s character you’re not going to find it here.
The chief story-telling wrinkle for those familiar with Mr. Felder’s other composer pieces is that he portrays Berlin at various ages while acknowledging the “presence” of those who occupy other parts of the story. In doing so, Mr. Felder interacts with empty chairs, something that might be risky, given Clint Eastwood’s well-known experience with doing so at the 2012 Republican Convention. Nevertheless, Mr. Felder pulls it off.
What he pulls off even more is integrating Berlin’s music into the story, and here’s where Mr. Felder’s long experience with this genre comes into glorious play. The musical numbers are well-chosen, they are, for the most part, recognizable (and if they’re not they’re interesting), and they provide a good deal of comfort, as audiences will at least know a chorus or so of most of them. The songs allow Mr. Felder’s performance some nuance, and he knows when to invite the audience to sing along (which, implies, in turn, that the audience should not sing along unless invited). Director Trevor Hay clearly has a hand in these choices, and they are masterful ones.
The production itself is perfect for a holiday run, as it’s set at Christmas time, with a large tree in the living room, and snow falling outside the windows (courtesy of the scenic design by Mr. Felder and Mr. Hay, the lighting design by Richard Norwood, and the projection design by Andrew Wilder and Lawrence Siefert). In fact, the projections allow the audience to see Mr. Felder singing along (courtesy of Erik Carstensen’s sound design) with the original performers of Berlin’s work.
I did miss getting to hear Kate Smith sing “God Bless America,” though.
San Diego is full of holiday treats, some familiar, some not so. Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin combines the two well.