ARTS & CULTURE
Review

'Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin' at the Geffen Playhouse

"Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin": From "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "God Bless America," it's an experience.

"I wrote for love. I wrote for my country. I wrote for you."

So says "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin," which will certainly keep the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse in festive, nostalgic spirits throughout this holiday season.

That indefatigable purveyor of composers Felder now applies his singular blend of musical biography, character study and piano virtuosity toward the iconic songwriter about whom Jerome Kern famously said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music."

This may be the only celebrated reference that author-performer Felder doesn't incorporate. Adroitly directed by longtime collaborator Trevor Hay, the intermission-less proceedings operate as pocket history of the immigrant born Israel Isidore Bailin and a reminder of the breadth of his output.

It iunfolds as an elegiac reminscence by Berlin's younger self for and to his 101-year-old self -- represented by the empty wheelchair that fronts Felder and Hay's townhouse set -- and the carolers heard singing "White Christmas" outside.

Greeting us as those warblers, Felder-as-Berlin recounts the story of his life, tragedies and triumphs alike, which in turns cues up the songs.

And what a songbook it is. From "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "Always," "God Bless America" to "Easter Parade," the significant numbers emerge, intertwined with the people, events and experiences that motivated them, punctuated by designer Andrew Wilder's wonderful projections and Julian Pike's keen lighting.

The results are richly entertaining and ultimately touching, though not without some issues. Repetitions in tone and text could stand a few trims, and Berlin's output affords Felder less options for concert fireworks at the keyboard than previous excursions.

However, Felder, a self-circumscribed artist, isn't applying his patented technique to Chopin or Gershwin or Beethoven. Far more attractive than Berlin, he assumes the impish aspects convincingly, and, although fighting a cold at the reviewed performance, the vocal exertions support the illusion.

And the repeated entreaties to the house to sing along and the haunting a cappella string of excerpts at the climax complete a fairly remarkable portrait.

Indeed, the empathy, showmanship and craft on tap may just be the best match of historical figure and performing artist yet in this franchise, wholly attuned to a gratefully participating audience. Those who resist Felder or Berlin are advised to skip this one -- it'll just leave more tickets for the rest of us.

"Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin," Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 21. $49-$84. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours.

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