By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A boy from Belarus grows up and becomes one of America’s most iconic and prolific songwriters. The show has no title, it’s simply called, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.” Presumably, because the title “White Christmas” was taken.
The show encompasses the whole of Berlin’s life and body of work from his boyhood back in Imperial Russia, to Tin Pan Alley, all the way to his deathbed at age 101.
It’s a lovingly-rendered history lesson with music.
Felder plays a few snippets of the songs from Berlin’s songbook from his first hit, “Alexander’s Rag Time Band,” to his final flop “Miss Liberty” with hundreds of songs in between. He wisely lingers over some of the more popular tunes, but there are a few clunkers in the mix. Felder knows it and winks and nods when he hits the keys.
Note: Felder plays the music in chronological order, some of the best songs such as “Happy Holidays” and “White Christmas” come near the end of the show.
The famous composer had an amazing life and career, and it’s a fascinating journey. He weaves some delightful tales of the famous composer. Felder as Berlin drops some famous names… Kate Smith, Fred Astaire, and…wait for it…Elvis Presley. Apparently, Berlin hated Presley’s version of “White Christmas.”
Aside from a swipe at Elvis (a National treasure), the show is very patriotic, because Berlin was very patriotic. After all, Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” Even though he was religiously agnostic, he deeply believed in America. After all, he went from bowery boy to legendary composer. His music has attracted worldwide attention and artists continue to record it.
Felder is a talented musician; his fingers fly over the black keys of the piano (Berlin composed most of his music in F sharp).
He deflty switches voices seemlessly from one character to another. Felder does, however, employ many of the one-man-show tropes. I will give him this, it’s much more interesting to watch Felder talk to an empty chair than it was to watch Clint Eastwood do it.
There’s an incredible amount of information about the composer swimming around in Felder’s head. The show was meticulously researched by Meghan Maiya, M. A. Berlin’s story is sweet, funny and sometimes tragic with plenty of great music.
Many people want to sing along to the classic songs, and it’s encouraged.
Personal Pet Peeve: I don’t want to sound like a Christmas Curmudgeon, but I hate it when I go see a show and the performer stops singing and asks the audience to finish it up. Gladys over there is sitting next to me singing off-key and I’m supposed applaud. At one point, Felder asks the audience to croon along to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” It took every ounce of energy in my body to NOT emulate Peter Boyle in “Young Frankenstein.” POOOOODINNNN ON THE REEEEEEEETTZ.
Felder is multi-talented. Not only does he tell some delightful tales about the iconic Berlin, he designed the set, and it’s a beauty! The posh living room set is decorated for the holidays with a piano, Christmas tree and snow softly falling outside the “window.” It looks like a holiday issue of Better Homes and Gardens, and its reminscent of those old-timey Christmas specials with Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. The set is enhanced with some amazing projection design by Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert.
If you want to know more about one of America’s greatest composers, you need to put on your top hat, brush off your tails and head down to the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The show runs until December 30 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.