World Class Classical Pianist Hershey Felder Becomes Irving Berlin


Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic
Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

Many are called to become piano virtuosos, but few, very few, are chosen.  Fortunately for audiences of LA’s Geffen Playhouse, Hershey Felder likes the intimate confines of the Gil Cates theatre.

Hershey Felder, the brilliant and creative concert pianist also had theatrical ambitions to go along with his life as a world class entertainer. Fifteen years ago, Felder created a series of bio-concerts which he labeled his “Composers Sonata.”  He researched the lives of history’s great composers, selected the pieces that were to be played on his gleaming grand piano, and then assumed the identity of the composer, morphing into and becoming the actual character, all the while dazzling his audience with amazing anecdotes about his characters, as well as, displaying his technical skill as a world class concert pianist.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment

“Monsieur Chopin” (2005), became the first in the sonata series, followed by “Franz List in Musik”, then “Beethoven, As I Knew Him”(2008), “George Gershwin Alone”, then “Leonard Bernstein: Maestro” (2010) and now “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”, in 2014.

Felder is uncanny in capturing the persona of each composer.   He convinces the audience not only through acting, and piano performance and song, but in strategically placed projections that help sweep the audience along, with photos, newspaper headlines, and clippings that punctuate Felder’s performances.  It may not be unique now, but fifteen years ago when he embraced his new technique, it blew audiences away.

In addition to his “Composers Sonata”, Felder performed his “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” show at the Geffen this January.  Also, Felder was the co-creator/writer and director of classical pianist Mona Golabeck’s one woman tribute to her mother Lisa Jura (also a classical pianist), with “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” performed on the Geffen’s Audry Skirball Kenis stage in 2012.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment

In “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin”, directed by Trevor Hay, now on the boards of the Gil Cates Main stage theatre,  the genius of Berlin, is not only his longevity (he lived to be 101 years-old), but the prodigious output of his canon.  We’re talking over one thousand songs over his career, many becoming major hits, which made him a household legend before he turned thirty.

Twenty-five of his songs went to the top of the music charts and are still re-recorded to this day.  His music forms a great part of what we call today “The Great American Songbook”.  Irving Berlin penned scores for nineteen Broadway shows and eighteen Hollywood films.  His most famous song “White Christmas”, crooned by Bing Crosby, is the most recorded and best-selling song of all time.

George Gershwin, a contemporary of Berlin, called him “the greatest songwriter that ever lived.”  High praise from a pretty fair composer himself.  The great Jerome Kern concluded that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”  High praise, indeed, from the Pantheon of American composers.

The technical credits for this splendid production featuring the piano artistry and performance of Felder and insightful direction of Trevor Hay, benefit from the mood-enhancing lighting by designer Julian Pike, and the projection designs by Andrew Wilder.

Hershey Felder’s loving tribute to one of America’s musical legends is performed without an intermission, in 110 minutes, which fly by all too quickly but will remain with you for years.  “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through January 4, 2015.

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