Hershey Felder has carved out a very successful career in the United
States and Europe as a composer, musician, and actor, primarily known
for his one-man shows that embody some of the greatest composers
including Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Leonard Bernstein, and the
award-winning “George Gershwin Alone” for which he received a Los
Angeles Ovation Award for Best Music and Best Actor. But alas, even the
most feted must sometimes fail as did his last production, “Abe
Lincoln’s Piano,” which just closed after a limited run at the Geffen
Based on the music of Stephen Foster, the play was akin to sitting
through a rambling, boring lecture on the circumstances immediately
following President Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth at the
Ford’s Theatre. In the first half hour or so, Hershey gives an
autobiographical profile of the genesis of his piano playing which
apparently began as a young child of eight in Montreal when, after
experiencing someone playing the piano, demanded that his mother buy a
piano and arrange for lessons. One cannot dispute the fact that Felder
is a most accomplished pianist and that his relationship with the piano
is definitely an extension of his body. But where was the story about
Lincoln, I kept asking myself and do we really need to know about
Felder’s childhood, which seemed rather self-indulgent.
Impatience finally unsatisfactorily paid off, as it was slowly
revealed that following a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington,
D.C., and his subsequently playing Lincoln’s piano at the White House,
Felder became intrigued with the president’s assassination and
specifically to a private accounting by Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, a
young Army surgeon who ministered to the mortally wounded Lincoln.
In 1909, at the age of 90, Leale finally broke his silence about his
experience. Hershey, taking some theatrical license with Leale’s
material, as the good doctor, cradles Lincoln’s head in his arms and
breaks out in song, singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”
So, now we know the ensuing, rather disjointed narrative, punctuated
with a sprinkling of famous American music compositions from great
composers such as Steven Foster, Louie Gottschalk, and George Gershwin,
the “lecture” will be presented through the eyes of the unsung Lt.
Leale. At one point in Act 2, Felder did not miss an opportunity to bang
out that evergreen, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” always guaranteed to
garner an audience’s wild approval.
The narrative was clumsy, as was Hershey’s acting, as he introduced a
variety of characters, trying to change his tone, pitch, and inflection
in his singing and speaking voices, but the alteration in the sound was
barely perceptible and all of characters bled into each other resulting
in almost all of them sounding the same. What was truly lacking were
fully actualized characterizations with inner lives and subtext.
The credit or blame for this production must be equally shared by
Felder, who wrote the book and certainly by the director Trevor Hay who
failed to reign in and shape the disjointed narrative which should have
been a cohesive journey through one of the most horrendous, murderous
acts in American history. Hay also failed to elicit the kind of strong
performance from Felder that he has exhibited in his previous one-man
Technically, the Scenic Design by Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay
beautifully reproduced the Ford’s Theatre proscenium stage, and was
draped in a lush velvet curtain. Lighting Design by Christopher Rynne
was fine but Erik Carstensen’s Sound Design occasionally overwhelmed
Felder’s dialogue. Hershey Felder shared Music By credit with Stephen
Foster & Others.
When a poor play gets a standing ovation, as a critic, it falls under
the heading of “what??” So, despite it’s approval by the audience the
night I attended, I must be a “spoiler” and declare that the emperor
was, indeed, not wearing any clothes.
The Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
For more information, call 310.208.5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Santa Monica Mirror. All rights reserved.