The sweet, catchy tunes of Irving Berlin are used as a catalyst through which to tell the life story of the man. Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin playing now at the Geffen Playhouse is, much like the man’s music itself, a sentimental and sweet experience.
Unfolding details of Berlin’s life from childhood to old age, 101 years old in fact, this one man show feels like a conversation more than a theatrical event. The music, however, does heighten some theatricality, and it will certainly appeal to the generation who were influenced by it.
Most of the evening, Mr. Felder is seated at a piano finding ways to insert a song into the narrative. And while the recognition of the songs will undoubtedly spark a reaction from the audience, it is only a few times where the music nicely propels the story. What’ll I Do, for example, blends the mellifluousness of the song to Berlin’s own life at the time, and the pairing of song and context is quite lovely. Another time this was successful was when he sings Always, a song that was a wedding gift to his beloved wife Ellin. The song is evocative on its own, so it becomes more effective as a device to heighten the emotion of the story.
Many times the songs feel included simple because of the recognition. Puttin’ on The Ritz, For example, it’s used as an example of early Hollywood musicals and how badly they sounded, and again when Hollywood figured it all out. The song itself says nothing about Berlin’s story. And that’s acceptable because the song was relevant to his career as a film composer. Other songs like Cheek to Cheek are used simply because we all know them.
It may come as a surprise to a young audience how many songs they’ll recognize, God Bless America seemed to elicit the most verbal response, “I didn’t know he wrote that!” I heard from a young woman sitting in front of me. The inclusion of audience participation when singing songs like God Bless America played up the nostalgia factor of this show and perhaps allows it settle into more sentimentality than is necessary. White Christmas, Berlin’s most beloved and famous song is the only song in the entire production that audiences will probably never hear the same again. Irving Berlin’s story about a certain Christmas from his past with his wife and two children is quite surprising.
The set plays upon the nostalgia as well. It’s in Berlin’s home, an imagined home. Large picture windows with snowy skies through them, a fireplace dead center with a large frame over it that serves as a projection screen where old movie clips are shown, and a lit Christmas tree in one corner. There is also a beautiful Steinway Grand piano down center where Mr. Felder sits for most of the show. Stage left of the piano is a wheelchair, where the elder Mr. Berlin is imagined to be sitting. Mr. Felder has conversations with the old Irving in the chair. Hershey Felder and Director Trevor Hay designed the set with a warm, Andy Williams Christmas Special vibe that created even more sentimentality than the lyrics to some of the songs. Lighting Designer Christopher Rynne keeps the mood just right. The soft lighting adds a nice intimate tone.
Mr. Felder does a beautiful job with most of the songs, he has a strong voice and enough gentility to keep the songs authentic and pleasant. This is more of a concert, or televised special than a play. We do get a lot of information about Berlin’s life, his early life, his marriages, his tragedies, and his career. But the use of so much music makes the story feel secondary.
Bordering on the overly sentimental, this is a sugary sweet production with wonderful music and an engaging performance that will leave audiences, if not smiling, at least with a song in their heart.
**Photos courtesy of Eighty Eight Entertainment
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Directed by Trevor Hay
Through December 21
Saturday 3PM & 8PM
Sunday 2PM & 7PM
Tickets $ 49- $84