Boasting a catalogue with over 1,500 songs, 18 Broadway shows, 16 feature films, 232 top ten hits and ten chart-topping singles, Irving Berlin is amongst the most prolific, gifted and celebrated composers and lyricists of all time. George Gershwin was spot on when saluting him as “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived,” though perhaps Jerome Kern summarized it best by simply saying “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”
Though Berlin wound down his career as rock n’ roll began (which he detested), everyone from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Luciano Pavarotti, Billie Holiday, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson and Lady Gaga on down kept his legacy alive across the following decades.
More than a century later, those claims remain uncontested with the masterful new musical “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” further reinforcing those facts, while also unveiling countless morsels about the man behind so much timeless music. Now in its second run at Chicago’s gorgeous Royal George Theatre, the one man show is a well-oiled machine that not only showcases the brilliance of his subject, but continues Felder’s acclaimed biographical series on the likes of Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven and Chopin.
As for Berlin, the sole actor/singer/piano player literally embodies the legend, tracing his birth in Russia, settling in New York City as a child, busking in the streets to aid his poverty-stricken family and settling into his short-lived role as a singing waiter. As his talents developed, so did the floodgates of opportunity, eventually leading him to pen such treasures as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Always,” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” “Count Your Blessings (Instead Of Sheep)” and “God Bless America.”
Though the songs never go out of style, hearing the stories that accompany the material is equally extraordinary, from “White Christmas” being adapted as an anthem for American troops during World War II, to “Supper Time” signifying the quest for civil rights when Berlin bravely cast Ethel Waters as one of the first leading African-American actresses on Broadway. Of course, he was no stranger to prejudice in his personal life after marrying heiress Ellin Mackay, whose social class-centered objections from her wealthy father were so fierce he disowned her (until he lost a fortune in the Great Depression and needed his son-in-law’s steady stream of royalties).
Indeed Berlin’s life wasn’t always showbiz glitz (especially considering death flanked so many seasons), but he was always quick to rebound by pouring those emotions into a song. All the while, Felder’s awe-inspiring portrayal of this process was supplemented with comic relief video clips featuring silver screen collaborators such as Fred Astaire and Ethel Merman, including a hysterical imitation of the latter during “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Though Berlin wound down his career as rock n’ roll began (which he detested), everyone from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Luciano Pavarotti, Billie Holiday, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson and Lady Gaga on down kept his legacy alive across the following decades. And as far as Felder is concerned, he’s nothing short of stunning throughout nearly two hours of non-stop narration and singing that’s likely to continue its sold out streak in town and gain additional momentum when the show heads to New York on June 6 for an international broadcast on the WFMT Radio Network in front of the entire Berlin family.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” continues various dates and times at the Royal George Theatre through May 22. For additional details, visit Ticketmaster.com.