Hershey Felder’s Feel-Good ‘Irving Berlin’

Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

It was 2018, I was 35 years old, and there was a singalong happening inside Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The occasion was Irving Berlin a one-man, cradle-to-grave bio-play about the great composer, played by Hershey Felder, a spectacular pianist and unpredictable singer who also wrote the script around Berlin’s music and lyrics.

It’s a warm, funny story, if not a subtle one, crammed with facts and anecdotes, a 101-year life story told in the first person and summed up in under two hours. That’s a lot of ground to cover; shortcuts are necessary. Stated frequently: the calendar year, how old Berlin was at the time, and what was happening in the wider world.

Berlin’s musical output is nonpareil, but his life is also a great story, no question. His loves, his losses, his hits, his flops. His first job as a newsboy to help support his family while they lived in a Lower East Side tenement. A singing waiter gig that led to his early success with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” There’s WWI, the advent of movies, the Great Depression, WWII, Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, Elvis. And of course, all roads lead to “White Christmas.” I heard more audience utterances of hmmm and ohhhhh than at any show I’ve ever attended in my life—in this storytelling, Berlin had a Gump-ian level of attendance at pivotal moments in early-20th-century America, and this audience was there for it.

The bio-play is a tricky format but Felder pulls it off with laudable charm, and Berlin’s music is woven in beautifully with the narrative (Trevor Hay directed). Even so, it’s hard to rise above the feeling that this is like the most amazing school assembly in the universe, or perhaps a truly magnificent museum presentation, excellently researched and culled from the pithiest anecdotes about Berlin’s life as told by biographers, family members and primary sources. Berlin begins talking to his old self, or rather to an empty wheelchair that represents his old self, as unseen carolers sing “White Christmas” somewhere beneath the windows of a spare but expensive-looking drawing room. (The single set, with a piano center stage, was also designed by Felder; occasional projections are by Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert.) Then we sort of doodly-doot, Wayne’s World-spirit fingers back in time to Berlin’s birth, as Israel Beilin in Imperial Russia, and our story begins.

Irving Berlin won me over, in spite of myself, because Felder himself is such a persuasive character and wrote the show with such self-awareness. The hokey-ness level is pretty high—every character that Felder-as-Berlin apes is basically a cartoon—but this show knows what it’s doing, and it does it well. What it does is tell us the story of the man by telling us the stories behind his music, for which we feel immense nostalgia. Berlin, whose massive catalog includes many of the most well-known hits of the “American Songbook,” was a composer who explicitly wanted to work in popular modes with popular ideas, which is why his music keeps time so nicely with the historical march of the country itself.

Berlin was a once-in-a-generation talent, whose music borrowed from everything from the Yiddish traditions of his childhood to the African American rhythms of his adopted home and influenced generations of musicians that came after him. He also seems, in this telling, to be an insightful and forward-thinking man, but that does not an insightful and forward-thinking show make. This picture of Berlin had virtually no shortcomings, which isn’t all that interesting. Sad things happened to him, and then he was sad—that’s not a particularly unique or complex interior life.

Given that emotional flatness, there is something odd about this being held up as an immigrant story, even though it absolutely is one. Berlin is, in this case, a model minority, a mammoth talent and apparently a liberal, empathetic person, who found success and supported his adopted country at every turn. Immigrants, they get the job done! Etc. Berlin’s patriotism began when America took in his penniless family from Russia when he was a young boy, the son of a cantor, whose family fled when their village was burned.

I have no doubt that Berlin was both a progressive person and a deeply patriotic American, but just because something is true doesn’t mean it can’t also be a heavy-handed device. That said, narrative flaws are easier to forgive when the music is that good. Enjoy the singalong.