Regional Reviews: Chicago
The historical content will be unsurprising to the Felder faithful who saw his An American Story and the Holocaust/World War II-themed The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which he wrote for pianist Mona Golabek. Like An American Story's hero Dr. Charles Leale, the physician who tended to the mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln and lived to age 90, Irving Berlin witnessed many decades of American history. Born into a Russian Jewish family that emigrated to the United States when he was 5 years old, Berlin was part of the wave of European immigrants who came to America around the turn of the 20th century. Collectively, these 20 million people did much to shape the U.S. Individually, Berlin captured the spirit of the changing America in his music and lyrics, as he shared the journey with his fellow immigrants toward assimilation in their new adopted homeland. He penned his first hit song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," in 1911 and wrote over a thousand songs before his death in 1989. Berlin was a major figure in American music for most of the century, but as a Russian immigrant who came to New York City at age five, his life reflected the immigrant experience in America from the early 20th century wave of newcomers through their assimilation into the mainstream. Berlin had a front-row view of these changes in American society and Felder uses this story to gently comment on the issues of prejudice and classism that impacted his life.
Following an introductory framing device, in which Felder as an aged Berlin welcomes into his home Christmas carolers singing his "White Christmas," Berlin begins to tell his life story to the unseen carolers. We're taken back to his earliest memories, of watching his village in Russia be burned to the ground. Shortly after the family's move to the U.S. and New York, his father dies and the 13-year-old Irving (at this point still named Israel) goes out to make his own living. He tells us how in those days, the various immigrant groups still viewed their home countries and ethnicities as the major part of their identities, explaining how ethnic labels now considered offensive originated rather innocently and were accepted or even embraced by the immigrants themselves. After changing his name to the more "American-sounding" Irving Berlin, he rises in the music business from street singer to songwriter, but despite his popular success and service in World War I, he finds that his immigrant origins make him, in the eyes of his wealthy potential father-in-law, an unsuitable husband for the man's daughter. Ellin Mackay married Berlin anyway, choosing love over money. Her father lost his fortune in the stock market crash and the Berlins remained married until her death at age 85.
Felder's script shows Berlin's empathy for African Americans as well, who as we know had limited acceptance by white Americans even as the more recent European immigrants were becoming integrated into the society. Berlin cast Ethel Waters as the first black actress in an otherwise all-white show, his Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer, which included Waters' solo "Supper Time," a song about a black wife's mourning for her lynched husband.
Berlin's professional career was connected with many of the great historical occurrences of the century as well. After being drafted into the Army during World War I, he wrote a revue performed by a cast of soldiers that introduced one of his earliest hits, "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." About that time he wrote a patriotic melody but, upon the urging of an associate, he kept the melody in the trunk until 1938 when Kate Smith introduced it as "God Bless America." Too old for service during World War II, he supported the war effort by writing several songs like "Any Bonds Today" and "I Paid My Income Tax Today," and assigning all his royalty income to the US Treasury Department.
None of this is to imply that Felder gives short shrift to Berlin's catalog, though with hundreds of standards among the 1000 or so songs Berlin published, it would be impossible to include them all in the hour and forty-five running time of this production. Felder makes judicious choices, including some mandatories but forgoing others. He sings "White Christmas" and "God Bless America," but only snippets of "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Easter Parade" and others in a medley that gives a nod to the many Berlin hits that don't get full performances in this piece. Berlin's catalog doesn't lend itself to a full demonstration of Felder's skills as concert pianist, but Felder's vocals are satisfying and he provides some absolutely gorgeous new piano accompaniments for the songs, with his heartfelt "What'll I Do?" a particular standout.
Berlin had the good fortune to live and work in a century when new technology was bringing entertainment to the masses in new ways. Beginning his career singing in restaurants, he flourished in the music business as recordings supplanted sheet music as the primary distribution vehicle for songs, then wrote songs for the earliest talking pictures. Berlin's film work for musicals of Fred Astaire (with clips projected on screens subtly placed in the handsome set by Felder and director Trevor Hay depicting Berlin's home) "Top Hat" and "Puttin' on the Ritz" are charmingly presented on screen along with a judicious and effective use of stills showing the people and places in Berlin's life. With the public no longer reliant on live performances to hear songs (as they were prior to the 20th century), recordings and films brought the work of the top performers to the masses and Berlin's songs were sung by some of the bestincluding Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman (who is seen here in a clip from Call Me Madam performing the counterpoint duet "You're Just in Love" with Donald O'Connor.
Felder plays Berlin as we may remember him from his many TV appearances in the 1950s and '60saffable and gregarious and ever the cheerleader. But if Berlin was not a "tortured" artist fighting demons, he had his share of deep suffering. He lost his father at age 13, his first wife right after their honeymoon, and his only son in infancy. In a particularly cruel twist of fate, he outlived his second wife Ellin even though she was 15 years his junior and lived to age 85. The script suggests his only escape from the pain was to keep writing, leading to a canon that arguably has been unequalled.
This is an unexpectedly deep piece. Felder makes the case for Berlin as an important figure in history as well as a creator of some of the nation's best-known and best-loved songs, while giving us a picture of the writer's humanity at the same time.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin will play the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago, through December 6, 2015. For ticket information and performance times, visit theroyalgeorgetheatre.com or call 312-988-9000.