“A shtetl with washing machines” is how Hershey Felder affectionately describes the Montreal of the 1970s he grew up in. “It was a strong, close-knit Jewish community.”
Hershey, who will be performing his one-man show of Irving Berlin for Arizona Theatre Company this month, loved the warm blanket of protection he felt as a young boy. A first-generation Canadian, his parents came from Hungary and Poland. “I was a typical Montreal Jewish boy – a mama’s boy, but with responsibilities,” he says with a grin. “Among those responsibilities was to serve your community, to take care of those around you.”
He attended the Hebrew Academy Day School, which he likened to a modern Orthodox yeshiva. Some classes mixed boys and girls, others were separate. “I am fluent in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish,” he says, not trying to impress, but rather showing gratitude for the education he received.
Hershey “demanded” piano lessons around the age of 6 – and received them. And thus his musical career began. He is now internationally recognized and revered as a pianist, actor, playwright, composer, director and producer.
After attending McGill University in Montreal, Hershey spent some time at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation helping to interview and catalogue the oral histories of Holocaust survivors. Shortly thereafter he began crafting the first of several one-man shows that he would end up touring around the globe. The first was “George Gershwin Alone,” which he performed to stellar reviews on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, in the West End of London at the Duchess Theatre and in regional theaters throughout North America and Europe.
“I love both music and storytelling,” Hershey explains. “Creating the Gershwin piece gave me the freedom and joy of combining these two elements and sharing them in a creative fashion with the audience.”
Returning to the States in 1996, Hershey met and fell in love with Kim Campbell, who had previously served as Canada’s only female prime minister. They married the following year. For a time they were at Harvard, she as a professor of practice at the Kennedy School for Government, while he was a scholar-in-residence in the Music School and performing “George Gershwin Alone” at the university’s American Repertory Theatre. The show went on to be the highest-grossing of any booked-in production in the theater’s history.
Borrowing on the great success of his Gershwin show, Hershey then created and performed similar types of shows on the great classic composers Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, as well as honoring another American composer with his “Maestro Bernstein” show.
In addition to his theatrical performances, Hershey’s compositions and recordings include “Aliyah, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra;” “Fairytale,” a musical; Les Anges de Paris, Suite for Violin and Piano;” “Song Settings;” “Saltimbanques for Piano and Orchestra;” “Etudes Thematiques for Piano;” and “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra.”
As a director, Hershey premiered Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012; he recently produced and created scenic design for Taylor Hackford’s “Louis and Keely ‘Live’ ” at the Sahara.
He now has a production company busy working on several projects and even getting involved with movies. “I love the collaborative process,” he says. “Even in the one-person shows, I’m only the front man. I couldn’t do it without everyone else.”
Hershey is looking forward to bringing Irving Berlin to life on stage at Arizona Theatre Company in both Tucson and Phoenix in the coming weeks. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston where he performed earlier this summer, he received rave reviews from both critics and audiences. During the show, he invites the audience to sing along at times – and of course they are very familiar with the melodies and lyrics of the iconic Berlin. As the famous Jerome Kern is reported saying, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He IS American music.”
Hershey not only sings the songs, he also captures the personality and spirit of Berlin. Hae mixes things up a bit by including impressions of other characters in Berlin’s life, helping to round out the scenario.
According to the July 11, 2015, review in the Boston Globe, “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 … when his ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ became a hit.” Audiences will be treated to snippets and full renditions of many of Berlin’s standards, such as “Always,” “What’ll I Do?,” “Blue Skies,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and of course “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.”
It’s the kind of show that is bound to stir nostalgia and warm the patriotic fervor while delighting audiences with familiar tunes all wrapped up in an engaging personality.
Hershey has performed for Arizona Theatre Company in the past having performed “George Gershwin Alone” to standing ovations several years ago. He has nearly 5,000 stage appearances to his credit and is always working on new pieces.
“Of course it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun,” he says. “And as long as it continues to be fun, I’ll continue to perform!”
HERSHEY FELDER as IRVING BERLIN
Presented by Arizona Theatre Company
TUCSON: Sept. 16-Oct. 4
Temple of Music and Art • 330 S Scott Ave. in downtown Tucson • 530-622-2823
PHOENIX: Oct. 8-25
Herberger Theater Center • 222 E Monroe in downtown Phoenix • 602-256-6995
Times and prices vary • www.arizonatheatre.org