Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Hershey Felder Presents

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is one in a series of one-man musical biographies written and performed by Hershey Felder. Berkeley Rep theater-goers and critics, myself included, have already sung the praises of Felder, the gifted concert pianist, composer and actor, who wrote and performed the first-rate one-man show, George Gershwin Alone (2013), the exciting, Maestro, about Leonard Bernstein (2014) and Monsieur Chopin (2014). Now he’s back with a similarly structured biographical and musical performance about the great American composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin (1888–1989).

Although the Felder shtick may be too much of a good thing at this point, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is definitely entertaining.

It’s hard to complain about learning about Berlin’s fascinating life, considering that this Jewish immigrant travelled from Russia to the US at five years of age. And what’s harder, he travelled from New York’s tenement-ridden Lower East Side to its swank Beekman Place, despite leaving school at age eight. Berlin’s happy and lengthy marriage to Ellin Mackay, a Catholic socialite, is another fascinating aspect of the songwriter’s long, largely fortunate life.

Yet these facts are readily obtainable from the detailed Wikipedia article about Berlin. But I did learn one tidbit from Wikipedia. The article mentioned that Berlin had the nervous habit of continually pressing his hair down in back. I was relieved to read this, because I thought that Felder was pressing a toupee in place, when he was merely mimicking a habit of Berlin’s. Felder did explain Berlin’s departure from his early upbeat tunes by linking two tragic losses in the songwriter’s life to his move to well-constructed songs with slower tempos and more somber lyrics. And we learned the story behind the best-selling song of all time, White Christmas (1942).

It’s always a treat to hear Berlin’s glorious music and lyrics. Among others, Felder sings, and plays, Berlin’s first mega-hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911), written when Berlin was 23 years old; his poignant, What’ll I Do (1924); the cheery Blue Skies (1926) written to celebrate the birth of Berlin’s first baby daughter; the patriotic God Bless America (1938), the royalties of which Berlin donated to the Girl and Boy Scouts; White Christmas; and tunes from some of Berlin’s Hollywood movie musicals, Puttin’ On the Ritz (1930) and This Is the Army (1943), as well as the Broadway musicals, Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1953). A few times, Felder invites the audience to sing along. It is hard not to join in.

Felder is a talented concert pianist and actor, yet his musical performance seemed overly florid and elaborate (some might say, schmaltzy), especially considering that Berlin was by no means an accomplished concert pianist. And the biographical presentation was a bit schmaltzy as well, designed to capitalize on the tear-jerking aspects of Berlin’s life. Though this did add to the theatricality of the evening, it felt a bit forced.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, a 105 minute, intermission-less glimpse into the life and songs of one of America’s most cherished musical talents, is a charming production, with high production values and a self-assured, talented host.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is playing at Berkeley Rep through April 30. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...