For all of the great American songwriter Irving Berlin’s genuine patriotism and genius for tapping the vitality of the nation’s popular spirit, he comes across in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin as something of a dyspeptic old coot.
Then again, when we meet him (in a clever bit of stagecraft, as the invisible inhabitant of a wheelchair that sits stage right on the Mainstage at Portland Center Stage) he’s a disgruntled centenarian, crushed by the recent loss of his wife of more than sixty years, haunted by the feeling that the popular culture he did so much to help create has passed him by, and, mostly, just tired of life.
Fortunately his younger self, in the person of singer, pianist, playwright, and solo performer Felder, is on hand to speak for him, act as an intermediary between the very private Berlin and his adoring audience, and explain the personal and cultural context of the extraordinary book of roughly 1,500 songs for which the man born Israel Isidore Beilin (or Baline) wrote both music and lyrics, altering forever the landscape of American popular music.
In Friday night’s opening performance at Center Stage, Felder was a brash and pounding presence, attacking Berlin’s songs with dominating passion and the piano keyboard with emphatic fury, as if he were afraid some fugitive modern reinterpretation might escape and misrepresent Berlin’s original intentions. It seemed apt. Felder’s delivery of this bounty of songs was distinguished by a fidelity to the periods in which the music was composed, reaching back in spirit to the straightforwardness of Berlin’s hero Stephen Foster and for the most part (although he began his career writing tunes for the dance crazes that swept the nation in the early years of the 20th century) avoiding the syncopations of the swing and jazz revolutions that came to represent and in many ways reinvigorate the Great American Songbook. If Berlin’s songs were simple compared to Porter’s or Gershwin’s, they also had the power of directness. They were essentially American statements of optimistic populism, with a potent blend of honest sentimentality and the hard nut of basic truths. They were songs you could hum. Songs you did hum.
In the roughly hour and forty-five minutes of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Felder uses song and story to tell an almost Horatio Alger story of hard work, determination, and success in America, the land of opportunity. Or rather, a Jewish Horatio Alger tale, because Berlin’s Judaism is an essential part of the story, a source of frustration, anger, discrimination, and deep inspiration. Much of the tale is purely inspirational: Born the son of a cantor in the western Siberian city of Tyumen in 1888 (he would live to 101, dying in 1989), Berlin left with his family five years later during yet another wave of pogroms, and landed in New York, where the large family crammed into a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. Like so many immigrant families, they lived in poverty. At age 8, Berlin quit school and began selling newspapers to bring in a few daily pennies; later he became a singing waiter, and began writing his own songs.
In 1911, when he was 24 years old, he became famous for his massive hit song Alexander’s Ragtime Band (which, as Felder gleefully points out in the show, wasn’t even a rag; it was a march, though it was catchily syncopated). By the ’20s and ’30s he was a giant on Broadway and in Hollywood, turning out hit after hit and rising, arguably, to the very pinnacle of a profession that was itself in a golden age. Yet always there were the snubs, including from his insanely wealthy father-in-law, who disinherited his daughter after she married the singing Jewish waiter. (The tables turned after the stock market crash of 1929, when his father-in-law lost his shirt; Berlin gave the man a financial lifeline, and treated him with decency if not warmth.) Even in the America that Berlin loved with the love of an immigrant, it seems, the nativism that has long been a crippling streak in the national character became a dark undercurrent that lent weight and caution to his music’s sunny optimism. An Alger hero can aspire, and succeed, and even become rich and famous, and still be an outsider, knocking on doors that do not open.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin moves at a brisk and lively but fully controlled clip, mixing biographical detail with a rapid fire of songs, from his very first, Marie from Sunny Italy, through a string of hits including the ballad When I Lost You (written after his first wife died of typhoid fever, six months after their honeymoon), Always, Blue Skies, There’s No Business Like Show Business, God Bless America, the comic wartime Army song Oh! How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning, and of course the iconic White Christmas. (The Jewish Berlin’s other iconic song about a Christian holiday, Easter Parade, shows up in a quick medley toward the show’s end.) Along the way, Felder/Berlin pauses for some amusing impersonations, including Elvis Presley and Ethel Merman (for whom writing a song, he declares wryly, isn’t like writing for a human being; it’s like writing for a steamship foghorn).
The evening is directed with precision by Trevor Hay and played out on a handsome set representing Berlin’s latter-days apartment (set design is by Felder and Trevor Hay, with lush decoration by Meghan Maiya, Jordan Hay, and Emma Hay). Perceptive lighting is by Richard Norwood, and very smart projections by Christopher Ash and Lawrence Seifert shift the scene and underscore the action.
Felder delivers his songs and narration with a deep sharp baritone shaped from the rhythms of the wise streets of the Lower East End, and with something close to a driven certainty, or maybe the desperation of a smart and talented immigrant determined to succeed by working harder than anyone else.
Like some fellow American Jewish entertainers as diverse as Sophie Tucker and Mel Brooks, Berlin’s art was shaped out of the sort of conflict that rises from being part of two cultures, and using that discomfort and energetic diversity to create something brash and new. And like another Russian immigrant, the great American choreographer George Balanchine, Berlin was a devoted and sincere patriot of his adopted country. Still, it was a place he was never quite certain held a place for him. The tale of Irving Berlin is something of a cautionary tale for the America of today, in the throes of a new and dangerous nativism: how to love one’s country at the same time one feels it has, on some fundamental level, let one down.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is the latest in a string of one-performer plays at Portland Center Stage that explore the issue of outsiders and their relationship to the larger culture, and the ways in which the larger culture responds to them. It’s a valuable if unofficial series, and one of the many things it strikes me that theater should be doing, especially at a time when the national political mood has swung toward extreme suspicion of “outsiders” in general in a quest for a return to some mythical earlier American Eden of cultural purity. It’s a revival of a belief that strength comes from sameness, not difference.
The series began last season with The Pianist of Willesden Lane, in which pianist Mona Golabek tells the story of her Jewish mother’s survival during the Blitzkrieg. Felder adapted, directed, and designed Willesden Lane, which returns to Center Stage for a limited run at the end of this season, June 17-30.
Earlier this season, Ryun Yu starred as Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American college student who fought against FDR’s infamous World War II mass incarcerations of Americans of Japanese descent, in Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continues through December 30 at Portland Center Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.