A virtuoso pianist, singer, actor and playwright, Canadian-born Hershey Felder has for years been charming audiences with his solo “musical plays” about composers George Gershwin, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Bernstein — and now, that lower East Side, Jewish immigrant singing waiter Irving Berlin.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” Felder’s latest, is in a regional premiere at Theatreworks. Beautifully directed by Trevor Hay, it’s full of humor, insight, compassion and, of course, great songs from the guy who wrote such keepers as “Blue Skies,” “What’ll I Do,” “White Christmas” and, according to Felder, thousands more, unheard by the public.
Felder gracefully embodies Berlin, slowly aging over time as, in a framing device, he relates his life story to a group of Christmas carolers (that is, us, the audience, which means we get to sing along sometimes).
He traces the tale of Berlin’s escape, as a babe in arms (née Israel Baline), from the pogroms of czarist Russia, across the ocean to New York.
He continues through Berlin’s early years — leaving school after sixth grade to sing for spare change on the streets of Manhattan — to his rise as a composer, two marriages (both beloved wives died, and one of his children died of SIDS), arriving inevitably at his bitter old age: He far outlived his own popularity and saw himself eclipsed by “the boy with the hips.”
The all-American rags-to-riches story (and Berlin, who wrote “God Bless America,” was nothing if not a true-blue patriot) is enhanced by terrific projections by Andrew Wilder and Lawrence Siefert: Berlin in his prime, his wives, his bearded, old-world father, an East European shtetl and much more.
Also: There are entertaining film clips (Al Jolson mugging his way through “Blues Skies,” debonair Fred Astaire hoofing it to “Cheek to Cheek”).
Felder intermittently plays other characters, displaying a gift for voices and mannerisms that is as rich and varied as his talent for singing and piano-playing. His turn as “that foghorn” Ethel Merman belting “There’s No Business Like Show Business” is as hilarious as his “I’ll Be Loving You Always” is exquisitely tender.
In the narrative, Felder emphasizes that Berlin’s songs were always deeply personal.
“I don’t like being alone,” Felder’s Berlin confesses. “The perfect place for me to stay is in a song.”
It seems that the perfect place for Felder to stay is in the persona of some of the world’s greatest composers.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 14
Tickets: $35 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org