There’s probably no better way to sing some of the favorites from the Great American Songbook than to do it with Hershey Felder. Felder is the one-man actor, singer, comedian, historian, pianist, and showman who just concluded his acclaimed Irving Berlin show at Portland Center Stage. After the end of each Irving Berlin show, he would invite the audience to come to an extra show that would feature songs from musicals and the opportunity to sing along with him. My wife and I decided to take him up on his offer and we joined the full house on New Year’s Eve.
The evening was a love-fest of sorts – with the audience in a buoyant, festive mood that gave Felder a long, and appreciative ovation when he walked onto the stage, which had the same piano, Christmas tree, and back wall as the set that he used for the Irving Berlin show – except he was flanked on stage by twenty people sitting on either side of him. Because there was no printed program of what numbers would be offered, everyone just had to go with the flow. So Felder sat down at the piano and began playing Berlin’s “Always,” inviting the audience of 640 to join him. We were immediately teased by Felder, who conducted the ends of each phrase with his free hand. Of course, lots of participants didn’t follow him exactly, and they were lightly admonished and cajoled by Felder. That got everyone laughing, and it enhanced the mood of the evening.
Felder then offered stories and insights into the selections that he would play and take the audience on a journey through some of his favorite tunes from various musicals. He would play the song in a key favorable to most voices and mouth the words clearly so that anyone could sing along. He launched into “It Aint Necessarily So” and “Summertime” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and followed it with “Our Love is Here to Stay.” From Jerome Kern’s “Showboat,” he led us through “Old Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “Along came Bill.”
We grazed on “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” and dipped into “South Pacific” with “Bali Ha’I,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Some Enchanted Evening” that was done with hilarious choreography, pairing a high-school drama student with a married lady. We finished up with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.”
Felder used his ear to pick out and invite on stage an audience member who knew all of the words to “The Sound of Music” (Rodgers and Hammerstein again) and had had opera training to boot. We also sang “My Favorite Things” and “So Long, Farewell” with women-only doing a couple of the verses.
We found out that Felder, as a teenager, was the music director and stage director of the first-ever Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” (Bock and Harnick) and had to use his incredible falsetto to play the role of Golde on opening night because the actress for that role was in the hospital. To celebrate that great musical, we did “Sunrise, Sunset” and admired Felder as he sang “Do you Love Me?”
The evening concluded with a touching reminiscence by Felder. From an early age, he had trained to be a serious classical pianist, but his mother fell ill and when he was a teenager he missed school for a year to be with her. They watched musicals on VHS over and over. Before she died of cancer at the age of 35, the last song she sang to him was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She asked him to sing that song with others and whenever he did that she would be there. So that’s what we did.