Amid the countless lives begun in struggle, beset with tragedy, poverty, and insecurity, most of us–in this country, at least–survive. Some of us rise to the top. And a few live lives legends are made of.
Let us consider Irving Berlin. Born in 1888 in Belarus, named Israel Beilin, he immigrated at age five to New York, as the Beilins and their countrymen fled the Russian pogroms aimed at wiping out Jews. By age 13, as a young man, he had dropped out of school and was singing on Manhattan street corners as a busker. He changed his name to Irving Berlin. In 1911, his song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, achieved international success. And then, this poor Jewish boy rewrote musical history.
It was only the very beginning for a songwriter who continues to be a household name well into the 21st century.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is the most recent offering at Portland Center Stage. Theatre-goers will remember Felder as the adapter/director/designer of Mona Golabek’s show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane presented at the Armory earlier this year. Felder is the playwright/performer/scenic co-designer of Irving Berlin, which is co-designed and directed by Trevor Hay.
The audience is invited into Berlin’s living room, where at the age of 100 he is holding forth as a curmudgeon. The artist has been in seclusion since he was 75. We will later learn why. And then, as Felder channels Berlin, we are invited into an incredible life of tragedy, triumphs, and music.
No matter your age, this is just an incredible show. Hershey Felder had already shown his writer/director chops to Portlanders in the Golabek show. Performing as Irving Berlin he also treats us to his fine baritone voice, piano virtuosity, a talent for morphing into other characters without pausing for breath, and a deft hand at exciting storytelling. No small feat.
Irving Berlin runs through December 30 on the Mainstage at Portland Center Stage.
Running concurrently in the Ellyn Bye Studio is the David Sedaris favorite, The Santaland Diaries starring Darius Pierce and directed by Wendy Knox. Santaland plays through December 24.