Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 24, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through June 30, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

Photo Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents
While it may seem incongruous to walk into a theatre on a warm June day and see a stage set with a Christmas tree and snow falling outside of ersatz living room, the recreation of Irving Berlin’s Beekman Place apartment is a pitch perfect setting for Hershey Felder’s loving tribute to Irving Berlin. For an hour and forty-five minutes, Felder seems to channel Berlin from his early days as an immigrant in New York, to becoming one of the most iconic composers and lyricists of the 20th century. His New York accent is perfect, his timing great, and his voice and piano playing, superb.

Felder is an excellent showman, and in addition to the research he has conducted on the life of Irving Berlin, he seemingly conjures other people from Berlin’s life—his father, mother, wife of 65 years, and a host of people from Berlin’s life who add to the richness of the tale of the “singing waiter” to becoming one of the most famous American songwriters. Berlin lived to be 101 years old, and Felder’s performance both explains the inspiration for approximately 30 of his greatest tunes, and highlights Berlin’s penchant for being a brilliant opportunist and businessman.  There is much to learn, and in addition to the story, illustrated by song, projections by Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert transform the space and add to the visual richness to the musical performance.

Though he has specialized in researching and performing the works of nine major classical composers (as well as George Gershwin and Berlin), Felder seldom sings in his performances. This time, he demonstrates a facile voice, sometimes leading the audience in songs that they can’t help but want to sing. The performance niche he has developed is fascinating, entertaining, and illuminating—and in this case, leaves the audience humming great songs, like “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and “What’ll I Do?” well after the spell he’s cast on stage, is over.

Felder and Trevor Hay, his long-time director and colleague, have created a performance work that both honors Irving Berlin as well as sheds light on his human frailty and his patriotism. There is a strong message that may be only a part of the show, but unites some of the themes—that immigrants sometimes become our most patriotic citizens, and that musical genius is a gift that touches everyone’s heart and soul. Indeed, in the closing moments of the show, “Berlin” talks about one of the most important lessons he learned from his father, that music is what often makes us human.