Playwright: Hershey Felder ( songs by Irving Berlin ). AT Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.. Tickets: 312-988-9000; www.ticketmaster.com; $60. Runs through: Dec. 6
Trust me: I know more about Irving Berlin than almost anyone. When viewing Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, I thought I caught a tiny factual error but later I found that Felder was right. Tip o' my hat to Felder.
In fact, a deep bow goest to Felder for his most successful show since George Gershwin Alone a decade ago. Cynics might say that Berlin's songs are foolproof. Even the 19-year-old who accompanied me knew "White Christmas," "God Bless America" and "There's No Business Like Show Business," although he didn't know who Irving Berlin was. One can number "Easter Parade," "Heat Wave," "Suppertime," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Always," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Cheek to Cheek," "Blue Skies" and "The Monkey Doodle-Doo" ( an obscure title that proves I know Berlin well ) among the 1500 songs for which centenarian Berlin ( 1888-1989 ) wrote words and music in a 70-year career.
Whomever Felder portraysGershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Bernsteinhe does an impression and not an impersonation, which is how he gets away with oversized wigs covering his own ample hair. In this case, he adds Groucho-like eyebrowswhich Berlin hadto complete his physical image of the black-haired composer. His acting is ... well, suitable for an impression. You never forget it's Felder performing, especially when he plays piano: Felder is a concert pianist, and Berlin could neither read nor write music. But Felder never pretends otherwise, and his impression has charm, timing and energy to spare as well as true admiration for his subjectall in all, a winning combination.
Felder quickly establishes Berlin as an ancient curmudgeon looking back, then lays out the facts: Israel Beilin, a Russian Jew, comes to America at five, lives in poverty on New York's Lower East Side, loses his father at 13, drops out of school, publishes his first song at 18 and changes his name to Irving Berlin. Before World War I he's rich and famous, by World War II he's immensely rich and world-famous, by 1980 he's a recluse ... but his melodies linger.
Side-stepping Berlin's lack of formal musicianship, Felder dazzles with splendid pianistic song renditions accompanying his own singing, and occasionally inviting the audience to sing. Felder reminds us of Berlin's heartaches, too: his first wife died six months after they married, and his only son lived just three weeks ( Berlin also had three daughters ). Felder ignores Berlin's tough business practices and remarkable ability to curse ( both learned coming up the hard way ) to emphasize Berlin's fervent patriotism.
The living room scenic design ( by Felder and Trevor Hay ) is luxurious and the well-integrated projections ( Andrew Wilder/Lawrence Siefert ) add greatly and unexpectedly to the show, which is directed by Trevor Hay.