Irving Berlin may be best known for songs such as “God Bless America” and “White Christmas,” but a much longer list is required to credit him with every wonderful melody he wrote. During his long life, Berlin composed about 1,500 tunes.
Throughout San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, the star pianist/writer/set designer pays tribute to the Jewish immigrant’s work, a collection that includes innumerable contributions to popular music, the silver screen and Broadway.
In a manner similar to those of his other shows, Felder delves deep into Berlin’s personal history.
Berlin’s family left their home in Russia because of the anti-Jewish pogroms, and emigrated to the US. His career took off with the hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and, even when dealing with his personal issues, he continued to be the most popular American songwriter for several decades.
Music blends in with Felder’s script in ways that are organic to Berlin’s story. The detailed information about the significance of each selection for the evening is one of the main reasons why the theatrical event (which had a successful run at the La Jolla Playhouse) doesn’t come across as an ordinary revue.
Berlin’s home is visually beautiful on the Lyceum Stage, while also serving a bittersweet purpose. His townhouse is decorated in a festive way for Christmas, yet only Berlin is present on stage. Berlin confesses to the audience that he hates being alone, and this is something that he unfortunately experiences at different periods of his life.
Whenever Berlin suffers a loss, Felder expresses his sadness in powerfully subtle ways. Happiness was fortunately something Berlin often felt as well. Felder depicts Berlin’s marriage to his wife, Ellin Berlin, as a wonderful one and his romantic song for her, “Always,” is performed with gentle pathos by Felder.
The performer expresses Berlin’s many moments of success with enthusiastic eagerness. When discussing the inspiration for classic songs, he seems genuinely excited to share the songwriting process.
A surprising fact about Berlin is that he learned music by ear, couldn’t read sheet music and played with a transposing piano. Felder, however, skillfully plays a grand piano throughout the evening.
Trevor Hay’s direction is at times calming and rousing, and complements Felder’s performance. There’s an appealing and relaxing quality when cheerful memories are shared and, for certain hit songs, Hay and several members of the creative team add a sense of grandness to Berlin’s accomplishments.
Felder may be the only live vocalist, yet, owing to Erik Carstensen’s audio and Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert’s projections, other great performers make guest appearances. Various clips of Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor enhance and further showcase Berlin’s amazing body of work.
Another aspect about these projections is that they provide an immersive experience. To appreciate everything that Ash and Siefert come up with requires the audience to pay attention to all parts of the theatre. Photos, classic video footage and snow are some of the images that are shown at the venue.
What Felder wants theatregoers to take away from the experience is the understanding that famous music deserves to be viewed on a human level. Contributions to art can be taken for granted, so it’s very moving to watch a play where a composer’s influential contributions can be appreciated in a new way.
It is motivating to see is how someone was able to be a success despite prejudice, tragedy and an initial lack of support from others. Despite all the problems he faced, Berlin was able to achieve his goals.
Once again, Felder presents a affecting, humorous and occasionally sing-along worthy tribute to an inspirational composer. Those still looking for unique Yuletide entertainment shouldn’t miss the limited engagement.