“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” the one-person show currently playing at Actors Theatre of Louisville, is a well-executed collection of songs and stories that portray a happier and simpler time in American history.
Irving Berlin was a prolific songwriter. You know dozens of his songs, even if you don’t know his name. Or, if you’re of a certain generation or of a musical persuasion that includes a passion for vintage musicals and movies, you know hundreds of his songs.
Felder also is prolific. As writer, actor and composer, he’s sold out performances all over the world. He’s written multiple one-person shows about great musicians, tackling Gershwin, Bernstein, Chopin and others. He also designed this play’s attractive and functional set.
As Berlin, Felder gives a great performance. He sings, he plays piano, he plays multiple characters. Or rather, he plays Berlin playing multiple characters, which is more impressive. He sells moments of pathos and heartbreak with little more than a wounded look or a sad walk to the piano.
The story is a fairly straight recitation of Berlin’s biography — from his family’s flight from pogroms in Russia, right up until the moment before his death.
As such, it’s almost adramatic. The guy had his first international hit song in his early 20s. He was mostly successful for his whole career. He had a few duds here and there, didn’t do great in Hollywood the first time (crushed it the second time, though).
He endured a few personal tragedies, but in this script, each one is introduced and pushed along down the road within the span of a few minutes.
More frustrating is the simple and always generous take on the 100 years of American history that Berlin experienced and sang about.
Around an hour into the show, Berlin informs the audience with great pride that his unit in World War II was the first fully racially integrated unit in the U.S. Army. This happens about five minutes after Berlin completely ignores the fact that there was a blackface number in “Holiday Inn,” his musical that yielded the hit song “White Christmas.”
Berlin shakes his head sadly about anti-Semitism in Russia, then shrugs off the racial slurs of early 1900s New York City. He sings “Suppertime,” a moving ballad about the effects of racist violence, but doesn’t examine the appropriation of African-American culture that came from the white mainstream embracing ragtime music.
He waxes poetic about the way America welcomed immigrants and gushes over the armed forces, but except for a nasty in-law, ignores the anti-Semitism in America.
Any hint or possibility of anything complex or difficult is stripped out of Berlin’s life, and instead of finding something interesting or dramatic, we are treated to a jukebox, a sing-along and a few anecdotes. As a jukebox and a sing-along, it’s very nice. I love a whole bunch of Berlin’s songs.
But I wanted more.
In the show, America is unequivocally the good guy. Anti-Semites are the exception, racism is a Southern thing. The only other bad guy is Elvis and an implied disdain for the kids these days.
With America’s current treatment of immigrants, with discussions of blackface still in the news, with anti-Semitism back on the rise, I hoped for a play that at least some way looked at the past to illuminate our present, used the musical creation of our idea of America to explore how it doesn’t match our American reality.
Irving Berlin, the writer whose words defined America’s vision of itself for several generations, provides a perfect viewpoint for such an exploration. The unaddressed contradictions that weighted down Felder’s script are exactly the things that would have made “Berlin” engaging on stage if they had been mined and explored.
Perhaps “jukebox with easily digestible stories” is what I should have gone into this play expecting. Fond memories aren’t an inherently bad thing. It’s nice to remember nice things — good times and beloved songs.
But when our art only remembers the good of America, we’re making up a mythical and great past that never actually existed. Which doesn’t seem so bad, right? Except that’s how we get a generation that is obsessed with making America great again.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” continues through Feb. 16. Tickets start at $30.