By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Jerome Kern – composer of such landmark songs as “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Pick Yourself Up” – was once asked about Irving Berlin’s place in American music. Kern famously replied, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. Irving Berlin is American music.”
Since he wrote nearly 2000 songs, it’s impossible to really define the scope of Berlin’s output. A few titles you might know include “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Blue Skies,” “How Deep is the Ocean,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and “Heat Wave.”
Or, perhaps, you may be familiar with three ditties he wrote forming a cornerstone of American popular music: “God Bless America,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “White Christmas.” That last one, in a version sung by Bing Crosby, still remains the greatest selling single of all time.
And all this from a man who was born Israel Beilin in a Russian shtetl in 1888 and five years later was brought to America when his family fled yet another pogrom.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continues through December 30. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412/316-1600. www.ppt.org
Desperately poor, a teenage Berlin dropped out of school and starting working at any job he could find – eventually ending up as a singing waiter, a gig which lead to an entrée to the music business … and the rest, as they say, is history; 20 Broadway shows, builder/owner/producer of a Broadway theater, 15 Hollywood films, eight Oscar nominations (and one win), 25 times his songs charting number one, Grammys, Tonys, Presidential medals and the composer that every other composer uses as the standard for great composers.
I could happily spend an evening just sitting and listening to a night Berlin music. (I’d recommend the legendary Ella Fitzgerald Berlin Songbook discs.) But the Pittsburgh Public Theater is bumping it up a notch with the presentation of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin; a one-man show in which Felder plays Berlin, sings some of his songs and shares stories and anecdotes.
Felder, also the writer, has been touring with the show for several years – including a recent off-Broadway stint a few months back.
It’s two intermissionless hours of some of the most phenomenal music ever written. Berlin lived an interesting life in interesting times and in his 101 years on this planet had moments of misery at least as equal to the moments of triumph. I’m less interested in Berlin’s life than I am in his music, but Felder has been very clever mining Berlin’s past for compelling anecdotes. He’s also a hell of a piano player and much of the pleasure of the event is just listening to him tinkling those ivories.
But, as has been said in the past in a different context, the news from Berlin isn’t all good. As both writer and performer Felder gravitates to some easy – not to say shameful – sentimentality. The sorrows in Berlin’s life are painful enough without Felder hitting them with a sledge hammer.
A critic friend of mine once said, about a particularly toe-curling performance of this nature: “It’s hard to feel sorry for someone when they’re so busy feeling sorry for themselves.” And the ending (when all of Berlin’s grief piles up) is nothing less than emotional pornography.
And don’t get me started on the sing-a-longs!
As a singer, Felder is probably best described as a “song stylist.” His performance of these numbers is highly idiosyncratic, excessively mannered and he continually upstages the material. I don’t want to sound brutal but nobody’s going to this because it’s Felder, they going because it’s Berlin and Felder needs to take a back seat and let Berlin do what he did better than just about anybody else.
As your trusty theatrical consumer reporter, however, I am duty bound to say that my quibbles might just be mine alone; I heard plenty of laughs, several sobs, saw the requisite standing ovation and very enthusiastic joinings-in on the sing-a-longs. (I thought I told you – don’t get me started on those!)
If you’re not familiar with Berlin’s work, this could be a pleasant opportunity to discover why you should be … and if you love Berlin’s work, this might remind you why you do.