Best of the Day: Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin – July 9, 2015

It’s Throwback Thursday all month long at ArtsEmerson.

Welcome to Best of the Day, our daily recommendation for what to check out around town. If you do one thing in Boston today, consider this.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin / Courtesy photo by 88 Entertainment

Canadian actor and concert pianist Hershey Felder clearly has special mutant powers. We’re guessing that he must have been bitten by a radioactive chameleon at some point, because his superpower seems to involve shapeshifting into roles of such famed musicians as George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven, and Franz Liszt. And for his latest trick, he’ll be morphing into great American songwriter Irving Berlin.

It’s an apt role for Felder, as Berlin—who penned such classics as “White Christmas,” “Anything You Can Do,” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”—was quite the chameleon himself. “America’s Composer” did not start out as an American, or even Irving Berlin: He was born Israel Baline in Russia in 1888. A century after Berlin’s birth (and a year before his death in 1989, at age 101), biographer Ian Whitcomb wrote about the man’s childhood in Irving Berlin and Ragtime America:

The floor of the Baline hut-home was of hard black dirt. Outside, the squiggly streets of Tyumen were either mud or dust according to the season. Lining the squiggles were horrid wooden huts. Sometimes wild pigs would rage into town and bite children to death.

His last memory of his boyhood shtetl was of Cossacks burning his family’s house down; from there, they fled to New York City, where he would transform into Irving Berlin and become the man who wrote “God Bless America” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

As uncanny as Felder’s abilities may be, it’s not to suggest his mimicry is effortless: To prepare for his current role, Felder met with Berlin’s relatives to flesh out his understanding of the man who retired from Broadway in 1962, trading stories and looking at family photographs.

The production that resulted is Felder, alone at his piano, performing 26 of Irving Berlin’s songs. For this month-long engagement—yet another example of ArtsEmerson’s superlative programming—Felder will be transforming into Berlin for performances that will have audiences singing in the theater.

Performances run through August 2, Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 19 Tremont St., Boston, 617-824-8000,