Tunesmith Wonder 

Hershey Felder delivers a masterful bow to Irving Berlin

click to enlarge copy-of-berlin-11-88llc.jpg

On Saturday, Oct. 3, there will be a special event, Hershey Felder's Great American Songbook Sing-Along.

Actor/singer/pianist Hershey Felder has discovered a way to honor musicians, classical and popular, in a way that is part play, part concert and all entertainment. The classically trained Canadian has returned to Tucson courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company, opening it's 49th season, where Felder fills the Temple of Music and Art with the images and sounds of a hefty period of America's history, in which songs not only reflected the times, but in some ways helped create them.

ATC has hosted Felder before. In George Gershwin Alone and Monsieur Chopin, both during the 2007-08 season, and later in Beethoven As I Knew Him in 2008-09.

Here it's Felder as Irving Berlin.

The performance is actually a love song to the tunesmith who taught America how to sing: with a bouncy step, a marching resolve, a winsome sense of loss and longing. Without a flaw, Felder becomes the hard-working, self-taught pianist who made stars in the skies of Hollywood and who thrived during horrible economic times because of his business smarts; who found love and lost it and found it again, and even wrote what quite possibly might be an anthem for gun control ("You Can't Get a Man with a Gun").

You've heard Berlin's work. There's no escaping it. He is the author of more than 1500 songs created over a 60-year hit parade, including lyrics and score for almost 40 musicals for the stage and screen. "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Always," "Blue Skies," "What'll I Do," "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," and "God Bless America" were all composed by Israel Isidor Beline, a Russian-born Jew whose family escaped from Tsar Nicholas II. He grew up in New York's lower east side with hundreds of other immigrants, most living in poverty, as did Israel's sizable family, which lived in such dreary conditions that they had to take in a boarder although they had no room for one. Israel Beline's father was a cantor in Russia but worked in a meat market in New York, and when he died suddenly, the 13-year-old Israel had to find a way to make some money.

And he did.

But it took a while. In the meantime he listened. He sang on the street for pennies, he became a singing waiter, taught himself to play the piano—but only in the key of F#, the black keys—and listened some more. And with "Alexander's Ragtime Band," written in his early 20s, he planted himself firmly in the landscape of songwriters who were to create what is known as the Great American Song Book.

One of the most impressive aspects of Felder's storytelling is a great respect for Berlin that informs the almost two-hour performance. It's seen in the first moments, when Felder-as-timeless-Berlin speaks to an empty wheelchair as carolers sing "White Christmas" outside his New York apartment. Timeless Berlin cajoles the elder, represented by the wheelchair, insisting that they acknowledge in some way the singers who come every year; their appreciation and love for his work warming them as they stand in the cold.

But his rather curmudgeonly refusal is accepted by timeless Berlin, who here begins his relationship with us, the audience, which in a handy way represent the carolers. Timeless Berlin gathers us graciously and we begin our time together.

We feel comfortable with this Berlin, trusting the generosity that glows through Felder. For the next couple of hours he holds us and we are grateful.

Felder works hard, yet his embrace of Berlin is so natural that we don't doubt for a second the sense we get of an actor who connects comfortably and genuinely with us, just as Berlin was able to connect through his songs. There is not a moment out of place, and the movement is seamless.

The setting both complements and enhances our experience, and story, songs and place are in perfect balance, which is not always the case. The design is credited to Felder and Trevor Hay, with projections by Andrew Wilder and lighting design by Richard Norwood. Eric Carstensen designed the critically important sound, and the production was directed by Hay.

Felder's is a masterfully conceived and executed bow to Berlin's generous gifts, both the musical ones and philanthropic ones as well. We bow to Berlin and


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