At several points during the opening night performance of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,’’ Felder gestured toward the audience in the Cutler Majestic Theatre as he played a tune’s opening chords, inviting them to sing along.
They did. They knew the words, and they knew the melodies. After all, this is Irving Berlin, of whom Isaac Stern said, when Berlin turned 100 in 1988, “American music was born at his piano,’’ and of whom Jerome Kern famously declared: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.’’
Yep. Berlin’s songs are simply there in the atmosphere, to be claimed as a birthright by each succeeding generation. It seems as if they have always been there, like the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or other national landmarks. The challenge for Felder in this solo show is to capture the man behind all those songs (a staggering 1,500 in all, according to Berlin’s obituary in The New York Times).
It’s a challenge that Felder meets, delivering an affectionate portrait of Berlin in the East Coast premiere of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin’’ while also giving free rein to his own joy in showmanship. In crafting this crowd-pleasing solo show about Berlin’s life and career, Felder and director Trevor Hay are not bashful about pulling — make that yanking — the heartstrings. But even the sentimental moments are palatable, since they’re consistent with the man under consideration.
There are flashes of melancholy in Felder’s Berlin, especially in his later years, a period represented by an empty wheelchair that sits near a piano onstage. Located upstage is a Christmas tree, a nod to “White Christmas’’ — a song that, as depicted here, carried an edge of sadness for the composer because his only son, Irving Jr., died unexpectedly in infancy on Christmas Day.
But the prevailing mood inside the Cutler Majestic is one of communal warmth, reflecting the populist gifts of composer and performer alike. Generally speaking, Felder’s Berlin is a lively but unassuming figure, much less given to introspection and anguish than Leonard Bernstein, the subject of “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein,’’ which he performed at ArtsEmerson in 2012.
That’s fitting. Berlin took a steady, workmanlike approach to the craft of songwriting. More artisan than artist in approach and attitude, he liked to say that he did not “believe in inspiration.’’ Unsurprisingly, the composer of “God Bless America’’ was a fervent patriot, little inclined to rebellion. He was happily married to the same woman for more than six decades; he mostly enjoyed financial stability, thanks to a series of smart business decisions that included buying back the rights to his own songs; and he died in his sleep at 101. Outwardly, not exactly the stuff of pulse-pounding drama.
But what a journey his life amounted to. Felder maintains a clear narrative line in tracing the songwriter’s path, from his arrival in the United States as a young boy, part of a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia who moved to the Lower East Side, to a stint as a singing waiter, to sudden fame in 1911, at the age of 23, when his “Alexander’s Ragtime Band’’ became a hit.
As Felder plays snatches of that tune and many others during his two-hour, intermissionless show, he helps remind us of Berlin’s wide range. An ardent simplicity characterizes songs like “Always,’’ “What’ll I Do?’’ and “Blue Skies’’ (as well as “White Christmas’’ and “God Bless America,’’ of course), while a playfully sophisticated wit informs “Puttin’ on the Ritz,’’ “There’s No Business Like Show Business,’’ “You’re Just in Love,’’ “Cheek to Cheek,’’ and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.’’ In one of the most powerful moments in the show, Felder performs “Supper Time,’’ which Berlin wrote for Ethel Waters in the 1933 musical “As Thousands Cheer,’’ depicting the shattered grief and loneliness of an African-American woman whose husband has been lynched.
Departing from his subject for brief impersonations of others in his orbit, Felder channels Berlin’s beloved, high-born wife, Ellin; the legendary Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld; a snarky musical secretary employed by the songwriter who dismissed “God Bless America’’; even leather-lunged Ethel Merman, star of Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun’’ and “Call Me Madam’’ (“It was like writing for a steamship foghorn,’’ Berlin observes here). We see several old film clips that illustrate the songwriter’s impact on Hollywood, including some with that indispensable interpreter and popularizer of Berlin: Fred Astaire.
The benefits of Berlin’s songwriting gift to the performers who sang his tunes and to the many millions who have enjoyed or been moved by them over the past century are as obvious as they are immeasurable. But what Felder makes clear is that the chief beneficiary was Berlin himself. “The safest place for me to be, and to stay, is inside a song,’’ Felder’s Berlin says at one point, adding: “What a song will never, ever do is leave you alone.’’ Then, of course, he launches into a song.
HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN
Lyrics and music by Irving Berlin.
Book by Hershey Felder.
Directed by Trevor Hay
Set, Felder and Hay. Lights, Richard Norwood. Projections, Andrew Wilder. Sound, Erik Carstensen.
Production by Eighty Eight Entertainment, Eva Price, Samantha F. Voxakis,
and Karen Racanelli
Presented by ArtsEmerson
At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through Aug. 2
Tickets $35-$85, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.