By Hannah Tarr
Christmas Day, 1980. A group of carolers hark outside a house, singing the same song they have been singing at this same house for 26 years: “White Christmas.” But inside, the sole resident is having none of it. “They don’t understand the gift I’ve given them!” he cries. To understand this gift, we must first understand the old man: he is Irving Berlin, composer of White Christmas. In his performance as Berlin, Hershey Felder leads the audience to understand Berlin with healthy mix of comedy and respect.
The performance, playing now at Actor’s Theatre, is a one-man show. Felder, with a raise of his voice and a change in his body language, convincingly becomes Berlin for an uninterrupted hour and a half. Felder runs through the beats of Berlin’s life and how each inspired his music: his childhood in Imperial Russia, his family’s immigration to America, his father’s love for singing and the way that inspired him to become a singing waiter and eventually compose his own music. Felder performs all of Berlin’s standards over the course of the show at the grand piano at center stage. Unlike Berlin, who could only play in the key of F-sharp, Felder is an accomplished musician, and the musical segments are the highlight of the show.
Felder’s portrayal of Berlin’s life flows well from happy points to sad points. He marries Dorothy Goetz, and it seems like life is going to be blue skies forever. But five months after they return from their honeymoon, Goetz dies from typhoid. Berlin is depressed about this for a long time, but eventually is coaxed by Goetz’s brother into writing about it, and this becomes his first hit ballad. It resonates with people around the globe. But one way or another, life moves on, and soon enough Felder is showing us Berlin’s up-tempo songs again and smiling.
The set was a living room dressed for Christmastime, with a piano in the center, a wheelchair on one side to symbolize Berlin as an old man, and an armchair on the other to symbolize Berlin’s second wife, Ellin Mackay. This unit set allowed the focus to always be on Felder’s portrayal, without any distractions for gimmicks. The lights changed color with the mood- red at high moments in Berlin’s life, blue at the low. Area lights came up and dimmed smoothly as Felder walked across the stage, to appropriately keep him illuminated at all times. The set and lighting were enhanced effectively by projections. A picture frame on the back wall above the mantle was often used to show historical photographs of Berlin and his family, or video clips of Fred Astaire performing Berlin’s music in a moving picture. All the walls of the living room were sometimes used for atmospheric projections– the projected wallpaper would fade away, and be replaced by animations of Berlin’s home village burning down, or of his family’s tenement apartment in New York. The projections were soft enough that the light level never fluctuated, but still very easily visible.
By the end of the show, Felder has brought us to empathize with and understand Berlin. We know “God Bless America” is from an immigrant’s point of view, thanking the country for all of the opportunities it has given him. We know “White Christmas” is about how Christmas, which used to be his wife’s favorite holiday, was ruined for them when their infant son passed away Christmas morning. We know he grew bitter as an old man as young people like Elvis Presley took over the musical spotlight, and the world began to forget what Berlin’s music had been worth. But we know that in spite of all of this, he has reasons to count his blessings instead of sheep at night, and maybe Felder’s portrayal of this icon who was a real human will lead the audience to start doing that, too.
Felder began performing as Berlin on Sept. 5 of last year in New York. He is now taking the show around the country, and he is performing it at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville until Feb. 17.