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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Arizona Theatre Company

Also see Gil's review of Man of La Mancha

Hershey Felder
From classic songs like "White Christmas" to "God Bless America," Irving Berlin has written some of the most beloved and well-known songs in the American Songbook. The latest part of Hershey Felder's "Composer Sonata," this one-man show brings Berlin to vibrant life, telling the very personal story of Berlin's rise from poor, immigrant Jew to world famous composer. This Arizona Theatre Company production takes us along on Berlin's life journey and features dozens of his most famous songs, plus a few of his lesser known tunes as well. It is a magical trip touching upon many highlights in the life of this man who wrote for the people and Felder is nothing short of brilliant in his ability to portray not only Berlin but numerous people in Berlin's life.

Felder's book for the play is a fairly chronological history of Berlin's life, framed by the theatrical conceit of Christmas carolers outside the now 100-year-old curmudgeonly Berlin's house, who continue to sing "White Christmas." Berlin has invited them inside to tell his life story, and to keep them from droning on. The show touches on Berlin's early days living in the Lower East Side of New York City and continues through his life's cherished moments, including writing for both Hollywood and Broadway, and the love he had for his two wives and his family, as well as the low points, including his songwriting failures and the deaths of his mother, first wife, and his son. Felder interweaves many of Berlin's classic tunes throughout to comment on the events in his life and what was going on in the world at each point in time.

Highlights include a stirring rendition of "What'll I Do?" when talking about his mother's death and an incredibly moving take on "Suppertime," the song Berlin wrote in 1933 about a woman's response to news of her husband's lynching, where Felder channels Ethel Waters who introduced the song. But there are also happier moments, as he talks about how Berlin wrote "Blue Skies" as a gift for his new born daughter, with Felder singing a sweet version of the song. While the hour and forty-five minute one-act play does bog down just a bit toward the end, it doesn't really contain any moments that go on for too long and does have a sweet and poignant ending.

In earlir one-man shows, Felder has portrayed other famous musicians, including George Gershwin and Beethoven, and his combination of skilled acting, singing, and piano playing makes him uniquely gifted to play these famous composers. Throughout Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin he plays dozens of people, from Berlin's family members to Ethel Waters, Florenz Ziegfeld, Ethel Merman, and Berlin at various stages of his life, using a unique ability to realistically morph between the different people he is portraying. He also plays the piano, which he is incredibly skilled at, and sings dozens of Berlin tunes, all with an impeccable flair and style. This is an exceptionally gifted and skilled performance full of moving moments, comical touches, and a refined sense of showmanship.

Director Trevor Hay has staged the play quite effectively. The settin is Berlin's living room, with a grand piano in the center, and Hays has Felder naturally moving around the set and using various props and set pieces to comment on the action and portray the people in his life. It may be a one man show, but the combination of Hay's direction and Felder's acting and singing, elevates it into a unique experience where you feel like you've spent the evening with Berlin. Felder and Hay also designed the set, which is lush and elegant, and Andrew Wilder's unobtrusive projections add another element to the show. From large background pictures of Czarist Russia, where Berlin was born, to photos of the people in his life and video clips from the films he contributed to, the images seamlessly change throughout, and help set the place and time of the various moments as well as show us the people in Berlin's life. Richard Norwood's lighting is very good, especially when pinpointing specific areas of focus, I especially like the moment when a shaft of light highlights the portrait of Berlin's mother when he is talking about her passing.

Irving Berlin was an incredibly gifted composer with a rich life story. Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin includes dozens of Berlin's best known songs, and with a stirring portrayal of the man by Felder and impressive creative components, it is a moving tribute to one of the world's most talented songwriters.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at Arizona Theatre Company runs through October 25th, 2015 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 602-256–6995.

Director: Trevor Hay
Scenic Design: Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay
Lighting Design: Richard Norwood
Projections Design: Andrew Wilder
Sound Design: Erik Carstensen

Irving Berlin: Hershey Felder

Photo: 88 Entertainment

--Gil Benbrook

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