“If a song is very good it may break your heart, but what a song will never, ever do is leave you alone.”
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin deftly weaves together story-telling, history lessons, and songs into a brilliant performance. Felder begins Berlin’s story in the tenements of Manhattan’s lower east side, and spans his 100-year life through love, tragedy, and war. Though I wasn’t sure what a one-man show was going to be like, Felder’s engaging performance omits the need for other actors, as he welcomes the audience into his cozy living room. The spirit of Berlin’s wife feels present as Felder gazes lovingly at her favorite chair and tells us how they met.
The richly decorated set looks like just the sort of place my grandparents would have had a cocktail, and perfectly complements the Berlin songs they would have listened to on the radio. The clever use of a projector by designers Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert add subtle changes to the backdrop, and offer glimpses of what the real Irving Berlin looked and sounded like.
An obviously talented musician, Felder transitions so smoothly between singing and speaking you hardly notice that the piano has been building gently behind an anecdote, until you find yourself in the middle of a song. A little bit of audience participation makes the music even more enjoyable, and I was amazed at how many familiar melodies were composed by Irving Berlin. The historical tidbits Felder and researcher Meghan Maiya weave into the narrative make for a compelling biography, and it was fascinating to hear the stories and the people behind the songs. I left humming some of my favorites, and was pleased to find the Rep has put together a playlist of Berlin songs.
This play is actually just the latest of Felder’s portrayals of famous composers, which have included Gershwin, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. Perhaps none parallel Felder’s own life so much as Irving Berlin though, both Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the performance is convincing. This is one not to miss, and will leave you impressed by both men and dreaming of a white Christmas.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin by Hershey Felder, directed by Trevor Hay. Seattle Repertory Theatre 155 Mercer St. 7:30PM Wed-Sun, 2:00PM Sat-Sun Feb. 23-Mar. 18. Tickets at seattlerep.org