AISLE SAY San Francisco

A New Musical Play

Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Castro and Mercy streets
Mountain View, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The indelible music of Irving Berlin and fascinating aspects of his life are featured in "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin," presented by TheatreWorks. Directed by Trevor Hay and subtitled "A New Musical Play," this one-man show features the versatile Hershey Felder, who wrote the book, plays the piano and sings some of the Berlin's greatest hits.

The show begins on a Christmas Eve as carolers serenade the aging composer with "White Christmas" outside his New York City apartment, and he invites them in. Felder then transforms himself into a young man who tells the story of his life beginning with his early childhood in Russia, where he was the son of a Jewish cantor.

After a pogrom in their village, his family made their way to New York's Lower East Side when the composer was 5. After his father died, he quit school at an early age to support himself living in various ways, including music. His first hit song was "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

He went on to become one of the country's most famous and beloved composers, creating musicals like "Annie Get Your Gun" and an estimated 1,500 songs ranging from "Blue Skies," "Always" and "Easter Parade" to "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and "God Bless America."

Felder relates this story with sensitivity and humor, emphasizing how events in Berlin's personal life and American history influenced him. He notes that Berlin's beloved first wife died of typhoid fever after five months of marriage. His second marriage to the daughter of one of the country's richest men lasted 62 years until her death and resulted in three daughters.

Besides singing most of the songs himself, Felder inserts film clips of some songs, such as "Blue Skies," sung by Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer," the first "talkie"; the title song to "Puttin' on the Ritz," sung and danced by Fred Astaire; and "You're Just in Love," sung by Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor in "Call Me Madam." Felder does an amusing imitation of Merman belting out "There's No Business Like Show Business" from "Annie Get Your Gun."

Felder is a virtuoso pianist. As a singer, he's at his best singing softly, as opposed to loudly.

Bay Area audiences may be familiar with Felder for his other one-man shows focusing on George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Frédéric Chopin, all presented at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This is his first appearance for TheatreWorks.

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, it's a highly entertaining, informative show, complete with some sing-alongs for the audience.

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