There's no business like show business.
Few embody the spirit of Irving Berlin's classic show tunes quite like Hershey Felder, who has made his name reincarnating various and sundry musical geniuses onstage. The chameleon showman has channeled Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin in past visits to Berkeley Rep. Now he's tickling the ivories while crooning the great American songbook in "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. This unabashedly nostalgic one-man homage to the composer, directed by Trevor Hay, runs through Feb. 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Born Israel Isidore Bailin, Berlin was the quintessential American composer, the man who gave us anthems such as "White Christmas," "God Bless America," "Easter Parade," "Happy Holidays" and "Blue Skies." Felder mines much poignancy from the ironies of a Jewish immigrant crafting the ultimate tuneful tributes to America, not to mention Easter and Christmas.
Tapping into the irrepressible rhythms of the Lower East Side, Berlin beat back the angst of his childhood fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia and buoyed the nation with his optimism for the future.
Hopefulness never came easy to the son of a cantor. He had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to make a living. He lost his first wife and an infant son to untimely deaths. And he never became immune to those who taunted his religion and his roots.
The bespectacled Felder, who, as always, sings and plays the piano with aplomb, seems right at home in Berlin's shoes. If this show isn't quite as deeply developed theatrically as some of his other solos (some of the shtick, such as the singalong, feels hokey), he's such a charming performer that a few creaky bits hardly matter. He's got a great story to tell about a man whose songs are ubiquitous but whose biography is little known in the age of Justin Bieber. The historical anecdotes are telling, the songs are unforgettable, and his Ethel Merman imitation is a hoot.
Berlin was nothing if not prolific. He wrote his first ditty as a singing waiter, scored his first hit at 23 ("Alexander's Ragtime Band") and then kept reinventing himself from Broadway to Hollywood until he died in 1989 at the age of 101. Along the way, he captured the nation's heartbeat in songs, including 232 Top Ten hits, that evoked the tenor of the times.
One of the funniest bits is how some of his best songs were hated by those close to him. Berlin often left these numbers to languish in the trunk for years before letting them sing. Among the losers he kept on plugging with were "I'll Be Loving You Always" and "God Bless America."
The Tin Pan Alley icon was a savvy businessman, negotiating 10 percent of the profits for the "Blues Skies" movie starring Fred Astaire, but he was also a big softy (donating the rights to "God Bless America" to the Boy and Girl Scouts). He had no formal musical training, he could write in only one key, and he needed assistants to do all his musical notation. But he had a magical ear for melody, and it never let him down, at least not until the era of rock 'n' roll dawned, and Elvis did a cover of "White Christmas" that made him cringe.
Like all of Felder's shows, there are moments here that will put a tear in your eye and a song in your heart at the same time.
AS IRVING BERLIN'
Through: Feb. 14
Where: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts,
500 Castro St.
Running time: 1 hour
45 minutes, no intermission