Hershey Felder's "Abe Lincoln's Piano" Closes At The Geffen Playhouse

Thursday, 23 Jan 2014, 8:34:00 AM

Beverly Cohn

Hershey Felder as Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, the young Army surgeon who ministered to the mortally wounded President Lincoln.
Courtesy Photo
Hershey Felder as Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, the young Army surgeon who ministered to the mortally wounded President Lincoln.

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

Playhouse.

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

shows.   

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.         

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