Live from Italy, it's an Irving Berlin-themed fundraiser

Performer's heart beats to the rhythms of Irving Berlin's music

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PITTSFIELD — It's been said that home is where the heart is. Pianist, actor and playwright Hershey Felder's heart is never more at home than when it is beating on stage when he performs as any one of the American or European composers that are the subjects of his solo shows — Gershwin, Chopin, Bernstein, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Liszt.

It's American songwriter Irving Berlin's turn Sunday evening when Felder's heart beats to Berlin's tunes in a benefit for Berkshire Theatre Group, and 11 other not-for-profit American regional theaters and one classical music organization. Felder will live-stream "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" from an undisclosed location — "for privacy reasons," Felder said in an email — in his adopted home: Florence, Italy.

The show begins at 8 p.m. — 1 a.m. in Florence — and will be available for an additional 72 hours after the live performance. The charge is $50 per household with 50 percent of each purchase benefiting BTG.

Patrons will receive confirmation of their purchase via email, followed by a reminder email on Saturday that will include a viewing link and a video demonstration for viewing on their smart TV, computer, smartphone or tablet.

Typical of his solo shows is a lively and informative post-performance exchange between Felder and his audience. That will be no less the case Sunday. Audience members will be able to communicate directly with Felder via text or online.

"Hershey fell in love with the Berkshires last year when he performed ('George Gershwin Alone') at our Colonial Theatre," BTG artistic director and CEO Kate Maguire said by email, "and we fell in love with (him). This ... event is a result of that collaboration and continuing relationship."

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The idea was born from a conversation between Felder and an acquaintance.

"I think everyone wants to do whatever they can, to aid in any way," Felder said in an email interview, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. "Two weeks ago I was on the phone here in Florence with a neighbor and I asked him if I could volunteer for food delivery service, or something for the aged — and he said 'the best thing you can do is make music.' And that got me to thinking, that if that is what I am to do, while I can entertain here in Italy, there is something I must do for the many theaters who have hosted me over the years as well as my own staff in the U.S. who have looked after me for so long."

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In addition to BTG, other beneficiaries of Sunday's event are Goodman Theatre in Chicago; Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.); Cleveland Playhouse; 59E59 Theaters in New York; Seattle Rep; Pittsburgh Public Theatre; California theaters in Berkeley, San Diego, Palo Alto, Laguna Beach, and Beverly Hills; and Lyric Chamber Music Society in New York.

Felder said he chose May 10 for the performance because it is Mother's Day here and "because we knew that as of May 4, there would be a gentle 'back to work' policy [in Florence] which meant that the film crew that I work with here ... would be able to move about so that we could make this work. We only went 'live' with the idea, once we knew this would be a possibility."

One of eight children, Berlin (1888-1989) and his family emigrated to the United States from Byelorussia in 1893. He published his first song in 1907 and had his first major hit, "Alexander's Rag Time Band," in 1911. Apparently, Berlin fell ill during the pandemic of 1918, something Felder hadn't known in the years since he first performed this show in 2014 and only now discovered. He's inserted this episode in Berlin's life into the show.

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"Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" is set in Berlin's Beekman Place home in New York on Christmas Eve 1989, nine months before his death in his sleep at home. With carolers singing Berlin's signature "White Christmas" outside, the venerable centenarian reflects on his life and a career that spanned five decades and left an indelible mark on American popular music and culture.

Berlin wrote the complete scores for 17 Broadway musicals, among them "Miss Liberty," "Call Me Madam," and, most famously, "Annie Get Your Gun." His extensive Hollywood credits include "Top Hat," "Holiday Inn," "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "There's No Business Like Show Business." His rich song catalog includes, among others, "God Bless America," "White Christmas," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Always," "Easter Parade," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Blue Skies," "Cheek to Cheek," "How Deep is the Ocean?" "Puttin' on the Ritz," "It's a Lovely Day Today."

He also was a co-founder of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers); founded his own music publishing company; and built his own Broadway theater, the Music Box, with producer Sam Harris. Among his many honors were the Congressional Gold Medal for "God Bless America" and other patriotic songs from President Eisenhower in 1954; and the Freedom Medal from President Ford in 1977.

Berlin's songs may well have ended but his melodies linger on because, Felder said, Berlin "speaks to humanity.

"He always said he wrote for the people in the most elegant of ways. That, he most certainly did, and the staying power of his art proves that he was as good as his word."


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