By Robert Israel
Pianist, actor, director and consummate storyteller Hershey Felder, known to Boston audiences for his solo impersonations of Beethoven, Gershwin, Bernstein and Chopin, returns after a two-year hiatus to Arts Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theater on May 20 through 31 in a one-man show entitled Abe Lincoln’s Piano.
Felder originally called the play Lincoln – An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra. It has been performed, to positive notices, at various national venues. Two years ago the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Felder narrating, recorded the work.
Performing that version freed Felder from the dual task of playing piano and narrating, but he said in an interview for The Arts Fuse that “the very reason I wrote the play in the first place – namely how I discovered Lincoln’s piano at the Chicago History Museum and the subsequent incidents that happened to me after that discovery — was stripped from the production. So, I wanted to bring it back.”
In the past, specifically for his solo show about George Gershwin, Felder immersed himself in lengthy research about his musical subjects. He studied the Gershwin canon and played each of his compositions on piano. He read letters by the composer and his lyricist brother Ira, visited the late composer’s New York City digs, and read a heap of scholarly works, all in an effort to more effectively channel Gershwin’s spirit into his performances. Indeed, publicity photographs that accompanied the show placed Gershwin’s profile alongside Felder’s countenance – and the resemblance was striking. Everywhere Felder traveled, he said, he heard from theatergoers about how his Gershwin portrait left lasting impressions.
“The problem became that everyone I met for a long while after the show saw me as Gershwin and only that, and they spoke to me about how my portrayal of him changed their lives,” Felder said. “And while that’s very flattering, I didn’t want to be known for just that one work alone.”
His re-branding forays away from that and other solo musical portrayals led him to direct a production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, a one-woman show about Holocaust survivor Lisa Jura, performed by her daughter, concert pianist Mona Golabek. That work premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2012, before traveling to Arts Emerson’s stage in Boston later that year. Currently, he has written and is directing a one-man show (now playing in Chicago) starring actor Chris Lemmon about the life of his late father, film star Jack Lemon.
“The Lincoln piece as I perform it now is essentially the same story I wrote a few years ago,” Felder said. “This time, however, it’s being told from a different viewpoint. Without giving the story away, it tells about the young doctor who ministered to the dying president after he was shot at Ford’s Theatre, about the life of Mrs. Lincoln and her predilection for mysticism. Musically, it is set it in the era in which it took place and features songs by Stephen Foster, as well as tunes from the American Civil War songbook.”
Felder explained that, while he still spends time researching his subjects, he is now becoming “more receptive to allowing the work, or pieces of the work, to come to me, and then to come through me, instead.” He went on to clarify, saying, “If we are open to things, information, inspirations, insights, they come to us. I’ve always been fascinated by stories, and storytelling. And people will stop me and tell me snippets of stories, and I listen. Why not? If we are receptive to others, we can use this information and we go on to make wonderful discoveries.”
Felder, 45, was born and raised in Montreal to Jewish immigrants who relocated to Quebec after surviving the Holocaust. He presently makes his home in Paris, where he resides with his wife, Kim Campbell, who briefly served as Prime Minister of Canada, and who is 21 years his senior. When the couple resided in Cambridge (she was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University while he performed his one-man Gershwin show at the American Repertory Theater), the local press was agog about their union. The gossip, Felder asserts, has thankfully died down. “We’re just a boring couple like everyone else,” he says with a laugh.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at email@example.com