My lovely companion was European and only knew that Irving Berlin had been a famous American songwriter. I have been writing about Mr. Berlin for many years and listening to his music all my life, so I thought I knew all about him. Was I wrong! At the opening night of HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN at the Gil Cates Theatre of the Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Ave. Westwood, (310) 208-5454), she learned more about Irving Berlin in one evening than I ever knew, and I learned so much more that it was both a stimulating, thrilling evening and a great education in American music. Hershey Felder is a phenomenon. I have been reviewing him for several years. I wrote about his playing George Gershwin, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Leonard Bernstein, all wonderful evenings which both entertained and illuminated. But I think this night with Irving Berlin is the culmination of Felder's ascending career. Interestingly, I learned tonight that Felder has been a scholar-in-residence at Harvard University's Department of Music and that he is married to Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada. Quite a guy, this Hershey Felder.
Trevor Hay, who directed tonight's performance, has collaborated with Felder for many years. Oh yes, I now remember that I also saw their Abe Lincoln's Piano at the Geffen. (Did you know that it was this very day, in 1863 that Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address?)
But as I said, this Irving Berlin tribute is something very special. We learn in this remarkable story that Berlin, long considered America's composer, enjoyed 232 top-10 hits and 25 number one songs. His life story takes us from the depths of anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia to New York's lower East side. My recent Huffington article about Fiddler on the Roof reflects the actual circumstances of Berlin's family life...their home in a Russian village was burned by the Cossacks and, led by his father a Cantor, they came to New York's lower East Side in 1893. Ultimately, all of the country and the world came to realize that the Irving Berlin life story epitomizes capturing the American dream. God, I remember as a kid watching Kate Smith sing his God Bless America first in 1938 and then in the 1942 movie, This is the Army (which featured an actor named Ronald Reagan) and no one had a tearless eye. And I have the memory of seeing a film clip of Berlin himself singing to the American soldiers his song, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning. Berlin wrote 19 Broadway shows, 18 Hollywood film scores, was nominated for 8 Academy Awards. Composer George Gershwin called Berlin "The greatest songwriter who ever lived."
Felder's show features the composer's most popular and enduring songs, from his early 1911 Alexander's Ragtime Band to Always, Blue Skies, to Puttin' on the Ritz (which Fred Astaire danced to in a 1938 film which we see and my buddy Herb Alpert just recorded in all its glory). Do you remember Ethel Merman belting out There's No Business Like Show Business? Wait 'til you see Felder doing his impression of Merman singing this song. Or Bing Crosby singing White Christmas? I can still visualize Betty Hutton singing the score of Annie Get Your Gun. No wonder composer Jerome Kern, no slouch himself, said, Irving Berlin has no place in American music - he IS American music!"
I remember when the Geffen's late founder, Gil Cates, first met Felder in 1997 and suggested back then that Hershey do a piece about Irving Berlin. Felder developed and the Geffen presented (and I reviewed) several other projects over the years, but Cates persisted in his request about Berlin. Felder had focused on classical composers during much of that time but he did begin working on the Berlin show. "I found Irving Berlin to be increasingly compelling," he has said, and he tells how he began to weave a narrative around Berlin's 101-year lifespan. Yes, you heard me correctly, Berlin lived to be 101, and was productive 'til the very end in 1989. But this is also a great love story, as we learn from the show. The Jewish guy (born Israel Isidore Bollin) in love with the Catholic society heiress, Ellin Mackay. Quite a match..and a love story that endured all through their 62 years together.
I happen to know how difficult it is to deal with the Berlin estate about his music. (I once tried to get a song for one of my movies. No go.) They, his three daughters, are very protective of the songs. So it was a Broadway producer, Eva Price, who also approached Felder about the idea of creating a piece about Berlin. She arranged for Hershey to meet Ted Chapin, the guy who oversees publishing of Berlin's catalogue (and that of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate.) Chapin then arranged a meeting for Hershey with Irving Berlin's daughters, who listened to his ideas and then encouraged the production, giving him much useful info on their father's life.
So now we have this splendid Geffen Playhouse presentation of the Eighty Eight Entertainment, Eva Price and Samanha F. Voxakis Production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin. It was directed by Trevor Hay and features the lyrics and music of the aforementioned Mr. Irving Berlin. Lighting Design is by Julian Pike and Production Design is by Andrew Wilder. (Wonderful use of background photos to set the mood.) It is scheduled to play at the Geffen until December 21st. (No performances on Mondays), Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturday 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday 2 pm and 7 pm. You can get the final performance schedule by going to www.geffenplayhouse.com Tix cost $49 to $84 and may be purchased at the boxoffice or via phone (310) 208-5454 or on-line.
As we left the Geffen Playhouse after the show, my friend - with tears in her eyes - said, "After experiencing Berlin's story and hearing his music, I feel reborn."
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