Cleveland Play House production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is pure gold

It is said that every song has a story behind it. Nothing makes this statement truer than with Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin presented by Cleveland Play House in the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square.

For over two hours Felder takes us on a musical journey into the life of “The Great American Minstrel” who prolific collection of 1,500 songs includes the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films with such standards as “Easter Parade”, “White Christmas”, “Happy Holiday”, “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, and “God Bless America”.

Five year old Israel Beilin came to America with his family in 1983 after their village in Belarus was burned to the ground. The youngest of eight children, the family arrived in New York City where all of the siblings worked including Israel (who sold papers) to supplement the meager pay that their father received as a kosher chicken inspector. At the age of thirteen, Israel’s father suddenly passed away. The family survived with his mother making a living as a mid-wife, his three sisters rolling cigars, his brothers working in a sweatshop assembling shirts as Israel sold his papers.

While selling papers in the Bowery he would hear music coming from the nearby saloons. Soon he was singing as he hawked his papers which resulted in people throwing coins at his feet. It was then that he announced to his mother his ambition. He wanted to be a singing waiter.

At 18 he got his wish and began singing at the Pelham Café in Chinatown. This led to his first published song “Marie from Sunny Italy” in 1907 for which he received 33 cents for the publishing rights. The song was designed to attract the Italian immigrants away from the neighborhood Irish bars and into the Pelham. It was here that he changed his name to Irving Berlin in order to sound “more American.” In 1911 he wrote his first of many international hits, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and his future was secured. His lyrics were the voice of the people as he wrote his songs in the American vernacular with simple uncomplicated words that everyone could sing.

It is evident in Hershey Felder’s show that years of research have gone into this carefully crafted production. With each tune comes a story…some funny…some heart breaking…some relating to the climate of the time…all of them wonderfully entertaining. Felder manages to take this simply complicated genius of lyric and music and breathe life into him right on stage.

Following the show Felder returns to the stage for an open question (any question at all) and answer (to the best of his ability) session where he is able to fill in the gaps of information about Berlin. Lastly, Felder sits at the Steinway and Sons grand piano to play Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” as he describes Debussy’s walk through Paris on a moon lit evening. This is a tease of Hershey Felder’s next musical characterization.

The stage set is that of Irving Berlin’s Christmas decorated parlor of 1988 that is lovingly designed by Hershey Felder and faithfully reproduced from photographs. Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert do a wonderful job with the video and still projections that add another dimension to the stories. The Lighting Design by Richard Norwood is superb as well. The show is smartly directed by Trevor Hay.

It is an evening of musical enchantment that all members of the family should witness. Wonderful stories of a master composer and lyricist are expertly told with tenderness and warmth. An evening such as this will leave you much more the wiser and pleasantly fulfilled.

The Cleveland Play House sponsored production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin will be on stage in the Allen Theatre through June 24, 2018. Tickets may be purchased online at, by phone by calling (216) 241-6000 or by stopping by the Playhouse Square Ticket Office located in the outer lobby of the Key Bank State Theatre.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.