A Pair of Broadway Composers – With and Without the Tunes

Felder captures intimate glimpse into the songwriting soul of Irving Berlin; Fudge provides sharp direction of Sondheim

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, ArtsEmerson, Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through August 2. 617-824-8000 or artsemerson.org

Merrily We Roll Along, Fudge Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown. fudgetheatre.com

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music,” Jerome Kern famously proclaimed. It would be virtually impossible to think of any other American composer to fit that pronouncement. After all, the Russian-Jewish immigrant originally named Israel Isidore Baline, wrote “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” Who should evoke Berlin and his achievement better than gifted pianist and performance artist Hershey Felder in an absorbing two-hour, no-intermission tribute entitled “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” – now in its East Coast premiere at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre.

Felder’s latest original solo show must have been a stretch in the making. Where two other Jewish composer subjects of the Canadian showman – namely George Gershwin (“George Gershwin Alone”) and Leonard Bernstein (‘Maestro Bernstein”) – moved between classical and modern musical genres, Berlin largely focused on popular compositions meant to “reach the heart of the average American.” Perhaps this focus helps to explain why Felder repeatedly invites audience members to sing along on such well-known gems as “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Always.” In the fairly intimate Cutler Majestic warmly lit by designer Richard Norwood, theater goers should feel as though they are visiting with the uncommon mensch and brilliant craftsman that was Berlin.

As the show’s title suggests, Felder is portraying Berlin. The composer self-effacingly spoke of possessing a small but honest voice, and Felder effectively evokes it.

Irving_thumbNo mere impersonation, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” captures both the pain and the pleasure of a remarkable 101 year life (1888-1989) marked by terrible loss (his first wife Dorothy Goetz from typhoid in the first year of marriage and some children at early age) and long love with socialite Ellen Mackay (1926-1988). With the help of Andrew Wilder’s vivid projections, Felder recalls the composer’s anti-Semitism-ridden childhood in which the family’s home in Russia (now Belarus) was burned down by Cossacks when he was five. The well-detailed set designed by the performer and director Trevor Hoy includes a silver becher (kiddush cup) which – along with brass candlesticks and a samovar – was to always call to mind both his cantor father (who passed away when Berlin was 13) and his mother, with whom he shared Shabbat evening meals.

Although Berlin seems to have lived a largely secular life, Felder’s show does demonstrate the composer’s strong commitment to such very Jewish principles as ongoing philanthropy and respect for all people, regardless of creed and color. There is significant material about fundraising for America through his music – specifically $10 million in 1943.

Elsewhere, undaunted by the pressure of influential bigots, Berlin was to hire great African -American singer-actress Ethel Waters [then unknown] to introduce the song “Supper Time” – about a black wife’s reaction to the lynching of her husband – in the 1933 musical “As Thousands Cheer.”

Berlin believed that a song will never, ever leave a person alone.

Berlin believed that a song will never, ever leave a person alone.

Felder’s balanced song sampling gives a good sense of the range of Berlin’s considerable composing of musicals (and the opening of his own Broadway theater the Music Box) and film scores as well as about 1500 songs. Look for good insight about “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” which would become a Ziegfield theme song, and “Putting on the Ritz,” surprisingly not a hit initially.

If “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is a profile in courage, it also stands as a thoughtful examination of the composer’s approach to songwriting. The show speaks of a friend’s difficulty sleeping as an inspiration for the movingly simple song “Counting My Blessings.” At other times, Berlin was writing for his country – notably setting to music the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus” that graces the Statue of Liberty. Tapping into Berlin’s approach, Felder states, “I (Berlin) wrote for love. I wrote for my country. I wrote for you (the people).” Irving Berlin believed that a song will never, ever leave a person alone. So it goes with Hershey Felder’s wonderfully moving labor of love.

*                         *                               *

Harold Pinter’s reverse chronology play “Betrayal” brilliantly plumbed the depths of an evolving adulterous relationship. Stephen Sondheim’s earnest musical “Merrily We Roll Along” – sharply directed by Fudge Theatre Company head Joey DeMita at the Arsenal Center for the Arts – looks like a Pinteresque reverse chronology putdown of a Broadway composer selling out for easy Hollywood success. Jared Walsh is smartly conflicted as fictional composer Franklin Shepard, while Adam Shuler displays good rage as his uncompromising collaborating lyricist Charley Kringas.

jules-merri (Copy)Andrea Giangreco brings great authority and feeling to the role of Mary Flynn, who serves as both great friend to the pair and peacemaker when their artistic differences become three alarm blazes. Vanessa Calantropo captures domineering Gussie Carnegie’s self-promotion and opportunism. Ben Shartlon has the right attitude as Yiddish-brandishing wise-cracking producer Joe Josephson. If this is lesser Sondheim, the biggest loss here is the closing of F.U.D.G.E. Theatre, which ought to continue rolling along after 14 years of notably solid work – including an ingenious revival of “Spring Awakening,” an affecting “Glory Days” and a haunting “Parade.”

– Jules Becker

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