A gifted (and well trained) musician in his own right, Hershey Felder makes liberal use of both the onstage piano and his own gifts of imitation.
His songs form a great part of the “Great American Songbook.” Lacking music training, he said he could only play in F-sharp, on the black keys – because “they stick out, so it’s easier.” George Gershwin called him “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.”
Jerome Kern may have said it best: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”
Hershey Felder, presenter of solo shows about famous composers, is back at San Diego Repertory Theatre through Jan. 7 with his popular show about Berlin, the composer of countless songs like “White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.”
Born Israel Isidore Beilin in Belarus (then part of the Russian empire), the family escaped the Czar’s pogroms and emigrated to New York City in 1893, when the boy was five. He had very little formal education, leaving school after the sixth grade. But he had an undeniable musical gift
His father, a cantor, died when Irving was 13; at that point, the boy went to work selling newspapers.
Later he was a street singer; after that, a singing waiter in New York’s Chinatown.
His métier was always music, and Felder tells, plays and sings Berlin’s story in a spellbinding whirlwind of a show. A gifted (and well trained) musician in his own right, he makes liberal use of both the onstage piano and his own gifts of imitation, using voices of people from Berlin’s life.
Berlin (who acquired his name when a typing error on his first published song, “Marie From Sunny Italy” listed him as “I. Berlin”), made it big in 1911 with his song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” though as he points out, “it’s not ragtime at all. It’s a march.”
He became a U.S. citizen in 1916 and enlisted in the army, which he later regretted because, as he wrote, “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 set his own work hours.
Berlin married twice. The first marriage ended quickly when his wife died of typhoid contracted when they were in Havana.
His second wife, Ellin Mackay, was a daughter of wealth whose father threatened to disown her if she married Berlin (he came around after their first child was born). They were together for 62 years.
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.
Trevor Hay is back to direct, and the show plays out on a simple but effective apartment set with two huge picture windows effectively used for outside atmosphere and/or projections.
Irving Berlin was a composer like no other: a Russian transplant who became the quintessential American composer.
“I wrote for love, my country, Ellin and the kids,” he says. “But mostly I wrote for you.”
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through January 7, 2018 at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.
Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm
Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or www.sdrep.org