“HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN”
By Iride Aparicio
Photo Credit: Eighty Eight Entertainment
HERSHEY FELDER in the role of IRVING BERLIN
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA- There is only one word which can describe “HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN.” solo show written and acted by Canadian-born Actor/Concert Pianist/Producer/Composer/singer/Playwright and Director HERSHEY FELDER, “Superb.”
As its title indicates, the drama, (with music and songs) Directed by TREVOR HAY, brings to life composer IRVING BERLIN, creator of over 3,000 songs (with lyrics) that captured the feelings of the American people so completely that 25 of them became No 1 in the Billboard Charts of the time. Some of his better known are: “White Christmas,” “Always” “There’s no Business like Show Business,” and “God Bless America,” which is still sang at every baseball game on the 7th inning stretch, to name a few. BERLIN also wrote all the songs for 17 Hollywood Musicals and for 20 Broadway shows. During his life (May11 l888-September 22, l989) he was a composer of such magnitude that JEROME KERN (1885-1945) another American Composer described him with these words: “Irving Berlin has no place in American Music, he is American Music.”
As an actor, FELDER opens his show by presenting his character, IRVING BERLIN, in the only way a composer could be introduced to the audience: by letting it listen to one of his songs.
In the interior of an elegant East/Coast apartment, furnished with a small table and two chairs on our left, a grand piano with a bench, and a decorated Christmas tree on its back, at the center of the stage, and a desk with a photograph on our right. In this scene, BERLIN is old, and sitting on a wheel chair.
It is December in New York and through the crystal of a window we could see the snow falling. Off Stage, in the background, a choir is singing “White Christmas.” FELDER (as BERLIN) tells the audience that he had become a recluse in his house, after the passing of his wife, but that this time he is going to open de door and allow the members of the choir, to come inside his house. He stands up, and motions to the audience as in inviting us to come in. BERLIN’s story begins.
His memories takes him back to the year l892, in Temun Siberia. He is four years old and, from their hiding place, he could see the flames devouring their house. Scared, Israel (his real name) clings to his mother Leah, who to protect him from the cold had wrapped a quilt around him, as his older brothers and sisters stand nearby. What he remembers next is his father, Moses Balin, a Cantor (singer) at the local Synagogue who, at that moment, is singing prayers in Hebrew thanking God, for sparing the lives of his family by letting them escape from the Russian Cossacks.
His next memory is his family following the familiar trek of other Jews driven from Siberia to the Jewish Pale of Settlements, then on to Latvia, to Lithuania, to the Baltic coast and then to sea, to start their long journey to America, where his mother’s cousin was waiting for them in New York. It took a month inside a crowded ship where the passengers were herded together like masses of human cattle, but they endured the trip with the hope to be able to start a new life in the “Promise Land”
The sight, the Statue of Liberty made his heart beat faster. It impressed him so much that years later, as Irving Berlin, the boy named now Israel Baline, and called “Izzi” by his family, would use the words of EMMA LAZARUS’ graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which the statue stands in one of his songs.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe fee. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-lost to me”
Sadly, their new life in the “Promised Land” as his family called America, did not offer the BALINE’s what they had hoped for. He describes to the audience their l apartment, located the Lower East Side, as dirty, crowded, and having rats as big as small dogs. As a Cantor, Moses, his father was unable to find a job, so he ended up working as “Shomer,” as the Supervisors of the Kosher slaughter houses are called, at a very low salary. All their children went to school but had to work, Israel, (Irving) selling newspapers. And he remember that every night when they came home, they had to drop the coins they had earned during the day, on their mother’s extended apron.
And their situation got worse in l896 when Moses Baline died leaving Leah, who could not speak English helpless in a new land and with five children. So, on his own accord, “Izzi” who used to sing with his father in the synagogue and could sing, left the school and got a night job in the nearby restaurants and taverns as a “Singing waiter.” (waiters in the saloons who served beer and sang songs to the customers) And in spite of not being the oldest, son, for years, he became the head of his family.
And looking for opportunities in the “Promised Land,” Irving Berlin, A Jewish boy with lots of talent but little formal education found them. one by one.
How he did it, is the body of the show and is told to the audience in brief compact narrations, enhanced by projections of movies, and the Berlin's family portraits.
How did Israel Baline became Irving Berlin? Actually, it was a printer’s mistake. When after years as a “singing Waiter” “Izzi” began composing his own songs, he wrote one which he called “Marie from Sunny Italy” that his audience as the tavern liked very much. When the song was printed, his last name (BALINE) was misprinted to BERLIN. He liked his new last name and decided to change it along with his first name. He no longer wanted to be called Israel, because it was too biblical and “Izzi” in the opinion of this young man did not sound “right” with Berlin. So “Issi” was changed to Irving which was the name of an English Actor of the time that he admired, and IRVING BERLIN was born on that moment.
As a theatrical work, the structure of the play is seemless. As an actor FELDER give us a masterful performance as he relates BERLIN’s life, changing his voice, at times, to imitate the voices of the different people he is telling us about. At intervals, he interrupts his conversation, go to the piano (we ought to remember that he is a concert pianist) and plays and sing one BERLIN’s songs in a mellow timbre of voice vocalizing well the lyrics and putting feeling in each word.
In “HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN” play, that FELDER wrote, acted and directed, his short narrations create a contrasting story of triumphs and failures, a moving drama, that make us laugh, sing the lyrics of the song along with him, and, at times, even brings tears to our eyes.
Alternating with music, projections and songs we follow the story of this Siberin-Jewish immigrant who became an American citizen, joined the Army and became such great a composer of American Music that on July, l954,at the suggestion of General EISENHOWER, the awards-winning composer got his greatest honor when in the White House he was bestowed a gold medal in recognition for his services in composing many popular songs including “God Bless America” (whose Royalties he donated for life to the Boys and Girls Scouts of America)
But the best part of HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN, play, however, is that being true, it demonstrates the "Jspirit" of America. BERLIN’s story shows us how with trials and tribulations and hard work, a Siberia-born Jewish immigrant with little formal education became a multi-millionaire in America, by using wisely, his God-given talent.
We will also get to know this man well, because through FELDER’s narration we actually were allowed to walk in BERLIN’s moccasins. We learned what inspired many of his beautiful melodies. The circumstances under which they were created, and how BERLIN’s moods shaped the words in the lyrics of his songs.
As a composer, IRVING BERLIN collected all his feelings and turned them into beautiful melodies. But unable to transcribe the sounds to notes and write them in black ink, on a pentagram, because he never learned to write music. he left them, indelible, in our hearts.
“HERSHEY FELDER as IRVING BERLIN” presented by THEATRE WORKS Silicon Valley, will be presented at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. in Mountain View, CA through February 14. To order tickets call 650-463-l960, or go online to www.theatreworks.org