Hershey Felder portrays Irving Berlin, the voice of America

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There might be no more accurate clock in existence than the one powered by popular music. Few things can suggest a time period better than a song. And few things can date a songwriter more quickly than the very songs that catapulted him or her to fame.

Of course there are “the standards” – the classic songs that are reinvented generation after generation. But if, like Irving Berlin – the man who dominated the popular song charts for nearly two thirds of the 20th century, and who lived to live to the ripe old age of 101 – it’s a good bet you will hear yourself drowned out. In addition, if, like Berlin, you remain fiercely passionate about the impulses that propelled your songs into existence, and you retain the immigrant fervor for achievement and patriotism planted in you from earliest childhood, you might just find yourself out in the cold.

And so it is in “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” the alternately exuberant and heartbreaking one-man show now in its Chicago debut at the Royal George Theatre – the latest work by the actor, singer, writer and superb pianist already widely known to Chicago audiences for his musical storytelling and indelible portraits of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven and Chopin.

Hershey Felder plays songwriter Irving Berlin at the Royal George Theatre through Dec. 6. (Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment)

Hershey Felder plays songwriter Irving Berlin at the Royal George Theatre through Dec. 6. (Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment)

‘HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN’

Highly recommended

When: Through Dec. 6

Where: Royal George Theatre,

1641 N. Halsted

Tickets: $60

Info: (312) 988-9000;

http://www.ticketmaster.com

Run time: 1 hour and

45 minutes with no intermission

The Berlin story begins with the songwriter in an almost Lear-like rage. He is alone in his handsome, old-style Manhattan apartment. Outside, snow is falling. Inside there is (ironically enough) a delicately lit Christmas tree, even though Berlin’s Jewish family fled the Czarist pogroms in Russia, arriving on the Lower East Side of New York in 1893, when he was five.

From beyond his window, Berlin hears carolers singing “White Christmas” – the most popular of his thousands of songs, including the 232 in the “Top Ten.” And he is incensed. Why? Not just because Elvis Presley, who became the symbol of the rock ‘n’ roll era that rendered Berlin irrelevant, recorded the song without ever contacting him personally, but because he felt Presley had no concept of the profound meaning of the song penned as a plaintive dream of American soldiers stationed far from home during World War II.

So Berlin then welcomes the carolers (the audience) into his living room, where a grand piano is center stage, and where he leads us through a career that moved from tenement-line streets (where Berlin was a child busker), to Broadway and Hollywood, and a songbook that became the soundtrack for this country for six decades, and, in retrospect, for “always.” It proves to be one fascinating, richly emotional ride through the “American Century.”

True, there is something a bit anachronistic in the overall style here, but that is absolutely as it should be. And like Berlin, Felder possesses the uncanny ability to tap into something his audience hungers for (even if it is no longer “fashionable”). You need only witness the uncanny way in which Felder relives the creation of such era-defining songs as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “I Love a Piano,” A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” (the prelude to a fine sequence about Berlin’s wartime initiatives), “Supper Time” (written for Ethel Waters, and designed as a breakthrough for an African-American performer on Broadway), “What’ll I Do?,” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (with Felder in a very funny Ethel Merman impression).

Of course there is a great love story worthy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel told here as well. In the 1920s Berlin met a young heiress, Ellin Mackay, the daughter of Clarence Mackay, head of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company, and one of the wealthiest men in America. They married despite the fierce objections of her Catholic father, and were inseparable until her death at 85.

Directed by Trevor Hay, with whom Felder co-designed the set – with artful assistance from lighting designer Richard Norwood, and projection design by Andrew Wilder/Lawrence Siefert that includes some irresistible bits of archival film featuring Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Merman and more ) – the show flows seamlessly between narrative and musical illustration.

As Felder explains it, Berlin invariably had a sense of the purpose behind his songs. But invariably it was a nocturnal light-bulb moment that clinched the essential phrase that would make it a classic. Indeed, he heeded his own advice to “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

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