By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
Has the pendulum of cynicism finally swung too far to the left? You may be inclined to think so watching the Arizona Theatre Company's sentimental and patriotic production of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.”
Especially when the audience begins to sing along, not once but twice (at least) to songs that have become such an essential element of the fabric of what it means to be an American.
Few artist's talents were so perfectly matched to the times as Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beilin, in Russia on May 11, 1888. Fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms of Tsar Nicholas II in 1893, his family reached Ellis Island and made their home in a Manhattan basement flat with no windows. The lad was five.
As his only asset was a pleasant singing voice, he was busking on the street before he was 10. This experience would shape his creative life: composing simple melodies to touch the hearts of ordinary people, as he described it.
When the United States plunged with chest-thumping vigor into World War I, enjoyed the brief euphoria of victory in the 1920s and then endured society's collapse during the Great Depression, Irving Berlin was right there writing the songs that matched the times.
Devoted to the principles of democracy and the American way of life, dedicated to his wife and family, Berlin's resume would eventually include 232 songs that made the Top 10 on national charts – 25 of those hits would go on to Number One.
Many of them receive a spotlight performance in the ATC production written and performed by Felder. His one-person revue is directed by Trevor Hay.
ATC regulars will remember Felder's stage portrayal from a few years back of another iconic composer from the same period, in the tribute “George Gershwin Alone.”
As the music of Irving Berlin is far more accessible than Gershwin, so is this show. We all know the story of the Jewish guy who wrote “White Christmas,” but may not know the song came to him on a warm day when he was sitting in a sunny La Quinta, California, deck chair remembering snowy Christmases back east.
Wikipedia reminds us there is also the story that Berlin wrote “White Christmas” while staying at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Thank goodness, Felder didn't include that version.
The other pillar of American pop culture that Berlin composed was sung by Kate Smith, and continues to be a nominee for our national anthem, “God Bless America.” At the beginning of both songs, Felder only had to play a few piano notes and the audience was singing along.
Audience members are encouraged to sing along on any other favorites, as well.
The showcase set-up, performed in a homey living room setting with a piano, has Berlin reminiscing about his life (he lived to be 101) as a younger man, telling stories and singing his songs in general chronological order. But just the highlights, of course. With so many staples of the Great American Song Book to account for, he performs one medley that has at least a dozen songs. He sings just a few words of each, knowing everyone will recognize the melody.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” continues through Oct. 4, with performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $23-$68. For details and reservations, 622-2823, or visit www.arizonatheatre.org.