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THEATER REVIEW: “Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin”

Irving Berlin wrote some 1500 songs – many of them now standards – on his way to being what Hershey Felder calls “the American Mozart.”

Felder isn’t alone in that high opinion. George Gershwin called Berlin “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.”

This Russian immigrant and his family escaped the Czar’s pogroms and moved to New York when the boy (né Israel Isadore Baline in 1888) was five. He had very little formal education, leaving school after sixth grade. But he had a musical gift, and though he couldn’t read music, taught himself to play in one key (F# – “because the black keys stick out, so it’s easier”).

He decided early on that he wanted to be a professional songwriter and began writing songs for other people. He changed his name to Irving Berlin.

Solo performer Hershey Felder has portrayed many famous composers (incuding Gershwin, Beethoven and Chopin in his “Composer Sonata”), but none suits him better than Berlin. His captivating “Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin” plays through Jan. 3 at La Jolla Playhouse.

This show has Felder singing, playing and giving audiences the story behind the composition of many of Berlin’s familiar works. Along the way, he tells about Berlin’s life and loves, using his own expertise at imitating voices to bring the stories alive.

Berlin reports taking 18 minutes to write “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” in response to the rise of ragtime music craze, though he notes that “it’s not ragtime, it’s a march.”

He became a U.S. citizen in 1918 and enlisted in the army, which he later regretted because “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” So he made a deal with his CO to write a show for the army to perform – as long as he could work at night.

Berlin recounts that he and partner Sam Harris built their own Music Box Theatre on 45th Street in 1919, and that the success of their first show (“Say It With Music”) allowed him to buy back the rights to the early songs he had written for others. This is what saved him after the 1929 stock market crash.

Felder has done his homework, and there’s something for everyone to learn, imparted in an utterly engaging manner. The audience is even invited to sing along from time to time.

Kudos to director Trevor Hay, as well as to Andrew Wilder and Lawrence Siefert, who designed the wonderful projections in the background, and to Erik Carstensen for the fine sound design and the scenic decorations by Meghan Maiya, Jordan Hay and Emma Hay.

George Gershwin called him “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.” A great composer, a fascinating person and a brilliant interpreter. How can you go wrong? Don’t miss “Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin.”

The details

“Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin” plays through January 3, 2016 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org