Tim Leininger, Contributing Critic - Connecticut
Hartford, CT - To quote a lady in the audience who spoke during the question and answer session after Saturday’s matinee of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” “God bless Hershey Felder.”
Over the past 25 years, Felder has made a career of traveling the country bringing famous composers, such as Debussy, Beethoven, and Liszt, to life in a singular one man show.
His newest show, “Our Great Tchaikovsky” ran at Hartford Stage two years ago and for the next week is bringing Irving Berlin to life in his show, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.”
The various degrees of talent that requires Felder to achieve the quality of work that he has been doing for so long is richly apparent in his performance, particularly portraying Irving Berlin, as in this performance he actually has to sing, unlike most of his other shows.
Aside performing, Felder also has credits writing the book of the show and designing the set.
What’s most important though is bringing Irving Berlin to life and not have him feel too much like a caricature, but someone with a degree of depth. Felder achieves that depth with a delicate grace and degree of legerdemain.
He dwells on the tragedies and hopes of Berlin’s life like immigrating to the United States, and seeing his father and his son die at early ages, but without becoming overly sentimental. He also spends time on a lot of the great standards Berlin wrote like “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “Blue Skies,” and “There’s No Business like Show Business” without getting overly silly.
One of the great things about the performance I was at, is that Felder encouraged people to join in and sing with him and the audience actually new most of the melodies and words to the songs.
There are some great production touches as well, particularly with the projection. At one point while performing “Blue Skies,” Felder breaks off from playing to speak how thing song went on to be featured in the first Hollywood “talkie” “The Jazz Singer.” The clip from the movie comes on and Felder plays the accompaniment as Al Jolson sings it from the film. It’s a beautiful little touch.
That’s the beautiful thing about this production, is Felder’s ability to connect to the audience through the songs and the stories behind the songs. There’s a certain feeling of pride that fills up the space when he tells the story of “God Bless America.” There is a feeling of grief and a newfound appreciation of depth when he speaks about the origins of “White Christmas” – something I will not spoil here.
After the beautiful “Our Great Tchaikovsky” I was thrilled to discover Felder was coming back to Hartford Stage, this time as Irving Berlin. With the beautiful work that he does telling these artists’ stories in efficient – even Berlin who lived to be over 100 years old – and intimate ways, I look forward to seeing him as many times I can in as many incarnations of musicians possible and hope he returns to the greater Hartford area soon.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Theater: Hartford Stage
Location: 50 Church St., Hartford
Production: Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book and Scenic Design by Hershey Felder; Directed by Trevor Hay; Lighting Design by Richard Norwood; Projection Design by Christopher Ash & Lawrence Siefert; Sound Design & Production Management by Erik Carstensen; Historical & Biographical Research by Meghan Maiya, MA; Costume & Scenic Art by Stacey Nezda
Show times: Evening: Tuesday through Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. Matinee: Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $25 to $90. Available online at www.hartfordstage.org, by phone at 860-527-5151, or at the box office