"The song is ended," as one of Irving Berlin's lyrics goes, "but the melody lingers on." Though he first rose to fame more than a century ago, Berlin's melodies have been lingering on in popular culture ever since, including in the one-man show "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin," presented by Theatreworks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Berlin is responsible for so many beloved songs -- "Steppin' Out With My Baby," "Cheek to Cheek," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Always," "Blue Skies," and the entire stellar soundtrack to "Annie Get Your Gun," to name just a few. And in some ways, Berlin is the perfect embodiment of the 20th-century American success story: the lowly immigrant who, through talent and hard work, bootstrapped himself into fame, fortune and legend (and offered up a little something called "God Bless America" as a love letter to his adopted homeland).
Born Israel Baline to a poor Jewish family in Czarist Russia, the young Berlin watched his village burn to the ground in an anti-Semitic pogrom then fled with his parents and siblings to the tenements of New York City's Lower East Side. After his father's death, Berlin left home, not wanting to be a burden on his family, and eventually found work as a singing waiter in a Chinatown restaurant. He taught himself to play piano (black keys only) in his spare time and began writing songs, finding he had a keen ear for the modern vernacular and a way with words and melodies. He had his first major hit in 1911 with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and kept right on having hits for decades (including on Broadway and in Hollywood), landing himself firmly among the all-time greats in American songwriting. In fact, a remake of his song "Puttin' on the Ritz" by musician Taco in 1983 made Berlin, then aged 95, the oldest living songwriter to have a current top-10 hit.
He was a supporter of civil rights, mixed with the echelons of society but stayed true to his everyman roots, and was fiercely patriotic. Not only did he compose "God Bless America," among many other patriotic tunes, and donate all proceeds in perpetuity to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, but he served in the U.S. Army and wrote and performed in productions at military bases around the world to benefit the Army Emergency Relief Fund. His life story, and more importantly his incredible collection of songs, provides more than enough worthy material to fill an hour and 45 minutes of showtime.
I'm always amazed by the sheer endurance and chutzpah it must take to do a one-man show, and "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" is no exception. The Canadian-born Felder has made staging one-man musical biographies his forte. Previous shows include "George Gershwin Alone," "Maestro Bernstein," "Beethoven, As I Knew Him," "Monsieur Chopin" and "Franz Liszt in Musik." While he doesn't particularly look or sound like the real Berlin, he's very talented (equally at acting, singing and playing) and is able to inhabit the character fully, taking on a Yiddish-inflected New York accent as he brings the audience with him on a look back at Berlin's life. Songs are sprinkled throughout, very ably accompanied by Felder himself on grand piano.
With a beautiful design by Felder and director Trevor Hay, the show is set in the elderly Berlin's apartment on a Christmas Eve, as carolers outside serenade him with some of his holiday hits, including "White Christmas." Berlin invites the carolers (the audience) inside to learn about the stories -- and the man -- behind the classic songs. Felder's mesmerizing performance is further enhanced by clever use of projections showing photos and bits of films.
Felder often encourages the audience to join him on vocals, in the spirit of Berlin, who, he says, wrote for the people. I found myself singing along almost without even realizing it at first. And I don't care how many seventh-inning stretches you've endured or how overplayed holiday songs can be -- if you can sit through the singalong portions without joining in and feeling at least some degree of goosebumps, you may want to get your heart checked.
Though it would have made sense, given the Yuletide setting, to have scheduled this show to run over the holidays, "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" is nonetheless a wonderful way to warm up a winter's night. The melodies linger on, and deservedly so.
What: "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin"
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Through Feb. 14
Info: Go to theatreworks.org