We first saw Hershey Felder in Maestro at the Cleveland Playhouse, where he portrayed Leonard Bernstein. His one man tour de force was one of the most profound and moving theatrical events we had ever seen.
Leonard Bernstein was one of America’s most educated composers, having studied with the great classical minds of the twentieth century – Dimitri Mitropoulos, Aaron Copland and Fritz Reiner. He wrote for every musical venue, and succeeded in each.
Mr. Felder wove Bernstein’s music through both his personal life and his socio-political times.
The conclusion of the play was beautiful but heart-breakingly tragic, as Bernstein confesses that he “hurt everyone who had ever loved him.”
So when we saw that Mr. Felder would be at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre presenting a similar one-man show about Irving Berlin, we immediately got our tickets.
And you should, too.
Irving Berlin could not be more different than Leonard Bernstein.
Berlin had no schooling past the sixth grade; in fact, he hadn’t a lick of musical education. The street was his tutor. (He came to believe that, in America, if you could read, you could become anything.)
The production concept of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin reflects Berlin’s common roots. Where with Maestro the audience served as over-hearer of Bernstein’s private confessions, Berlin invites his audience into his New York apartment on Christmas Eve. He has decided that, after years of being caroled to outside his window, he would invite the carolers (the audience) into his apartment so they can learn the true story behind White Christmas, and all of his other tunes. As a result, Berlin, unlike the lofty Bernstein, occasionally asks his guests to sing along with him.
The result is two hours of non-stop engrossing entertainment, as Felder/Berlin takes us through his life’s peaks and valleys, triumph and loneliness, as, along the way, we recall our own. At the end of his long and well-lived life Berlin confesses, “I wrote for love. I wrote for my country. I wrote for you.”
For his last twenty-five years Berlin lived as a recluse, heart-broken at the changes he saw in his beloved country, the “land that I love”.
While Bernstein had cut himself off from love, Berlin’s America, his love, had proved fickle and moved on and away from him.
Mr. Felder’s expert musicianship and brilliant showmanship prove equal to both the tragic composer of high culture and the heart-broken composer of the people’s music.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is not just great entertainment, it is a poignant trip to an America which, sadly, no longer exists, except in fading memories.