‘Irving Berlin’ is Hershey Felder at his finest
BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox honored Irving Berlin again Sunday. Along with the rest of Major League Baseball.
Red Sox fans stood as one and sang “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch, probably about the same time that across the Back Bay in the Theater District, Hershey Felder was leading a theater full of people in singing the same piece.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre is a warm, wonderful musical portrait of a man who wore his love for his adopted country on his musical sleeve.
Indeed, his songs are credited with boosting American soldiers’ spirits in two World Wars, and a patriotic event really isn’t one unless at least one Berlin tune is on the menu.
Felder plays the piece as Berlin at two stages of his life, at times a younger Berlin telling his story and ultimately as an old man with a nod to a wheelchair that would have borne him as he lived to the age of 101.
It takes place at Christmastime, with carolers serenading Berlin outside , and snow falling gently.
The success story that was Irving Berlin was quite remarkable in every respect. Berlin was born Israel Baline, who as a child watched Russian soldiers burn his Jewish village, and after the pogrom he journeyed as a five-year-old with his family to the teeming tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, the Crossroads of the World for immigrants of all kind.
The family struggles to support itself and his father, a former cantor, dies when Berlin is just 16, and he becomes a street performer to stay alive and to relieve his family of the burden of caring for him.
Berlin, who dropped out of school in sixth grade, never learned to read music, playing everything he composed in the key of F-sharp, working with a special transcribing keyboard and a musical secretary who could help him explore other keys.
His first big musical break comes as a singing waiter in Chinatown, and in his first published song — 1907’s “Sunny Marie From Italy” — his name was misspelled as “I. Berlin,” so he decided to become Irving Berlin.
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” — his first No. 1 hit in 1911 at the age of 23 — sent him on the way to a career that would span the better part of six decades and 2,500 songs, 200 of them Top 10 hits, 25 of them reaching No. 1.
He endured great heartbreak among the joy, losing his first wife to typhus just five months after the marriage and his only son, Irving Berlin Jr., who simply stopped breathing on Christmas Day, 1928. The later writing of the Oscar-winning “White Christmas” — still the best-selling single record of all time — would thus always be a source of both pleasure and pain.
He also saw his second wife and love of his life — socialite Ellin Mackay — disowned by her father after marrying Berlin. While his father-in-law went down, Berlin survived the Crash of 1929 because he had the foresight to repurchase the rights to all of his songs before the bottom fell out of the market.
There are unearthed gems galore such as Berlin putting “God Bless America” aside for decades until Kate Smith needed a song to sing.
Then there was his success on Broadway and in films, where talents such as Fred Astaire and Ethel Merman took Berlin tunes and ran with them.
Felder gets into the reasons Berlin decided to retire after “Mr. President” in 1962, fearing his old-fashioned patriotic voice had become lost in the shuffle of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n roll.
Felder can get a bit schmaltzy at times, but there is something very magical about an entire theater swaying together as it sings along with Felder to timeless pieces such as “Blue Skies,” “Always” and “White Christmas.”
Felder hit a rare sour note with last season’s “Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” which was all over the place, but he is again back as an iconic chronicler of the musical greats, including past pieces on Beethoven, Bernstein, Chopin and Gershwin.
The production values are solid, with set design by Felder and Director Trevor Hay, and Andrew Wilder’s lively projections.
The best of Felder is when his preparation — the perspiration behind the research and the writing — meets the inspiration of his acting and musicianship. “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is the actor/musician at his finest.
ArtsEmerson presents “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.” Lyrics & Music by Irving Berlin. Book by Hershey Felder. Directed by Trevor Hay. Scenic Design by Hershey Felder & Trevor Hay. Lighting Design by Richard Norwood. Projection Design by Andrew Wilder. Sound Design and Production Management by Erik Carstensen. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre through Aug. 9. http://www.artsemerson.org.