Hershey Felder is back at the Geffen with his latest one-man show, Hershey Felder In Abe Lincoln’s Piano, and though Felder does treat the audience to a bit of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, unlike the smash hit Hershey Felder As George Gershwin Alone, the maestro’s latest may prove a hard sell to all but Felder fanatics.
Previous Felder showcases had him personifying musical legends like Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin, or Leonard Bernstein. Hershey Felder In Abe Lincoln’s Piano, on the other hand, gives us Hershey Felder as Hershey Felder, and even when Felder does take on a different identity, either a nameless Chicago History Museum employee or Charles Augustus Leale, the young doctor who tended to Lincoln as he lay dying, their voices are so similar to Felder’s own that it is often hard to follow exactly who is speaking.
Directed by Trevor Hay, Felder’s staged memoir starts promisingly enough, with 6-year-old Hershey seeing a piano up close for the first time, leading to piano lessons and the discovery at his mother’s knee of masters like Bach, Mozart, Schubert.
It was Momma Felder who insisted young Hershey learn about American composers, among them Louisianan Louis Moreau Gottschalk (“The Union”), George Gershwin (“Rhapsody In Blue”), and Stephen Foster, whose “Beautiful Dreamer” Felder warbles in his mother’s pleasant but off-pitch voice. Unfortunately, a little Stephen Foster can go a long way, and we not only hear “Beautiful Dreamer” again and again (including a Bing Crosby recording favored by Felder’s mother) but also Felder piano-vocal performances of “Swanee River” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Felder recalls the ten years he spent in Los Angeles as a young adult “working for change” before a 2002 invitation to perform “Rhapsody In Blue” at Ford’s Theater took the pianist to Washington D.C. and the series of Civil War-era recollections that make up most of Hershey Felder In Abe Lincoln’s Piano.
Christopher Rynne’s overly dim lighting design does not help maintain audience alertness as Felder launches into sometimes confusing flashbacks to the night of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater with side trips to the White House, where Felder was given a personal tour including the very spot where Lincoln lay in state, and the Chicago History Museum, where he discovered the titular Abe Lincoln’s Piano.
Things do perk up at the end of Hershey Felder In Abe Lincoln’s Piano’s intermissionless ninety minutes with a powerful recitation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and a keyboard performance of Felder’s mother’s favorite, Gottschalk’s “The Union.” If only all of Hershey Felder In Abe Lincoln’s Piano was this engaging.
Scenic designers Felder and Hay transform the Geffen stage into a replica of Ford’s Theater as it looked the night Lincoln was shot, with projection designers Andrew Wilder, Greg Sowizdrzal, and Lawrence Siefert taking us to various other locales, while Meghan Maiya, Jordan Hay, and Emma Hay provide scenic decoration. Costume designer Abigail Caywood garbs the shoulder-length-tressed Felder in contemporary black. Erik Carstensen’s sound design is effective.
Cynthia Caywood, PhD is dramaturg. Carstensen is production manager/producer.
Lincoln scholars, Foster buffs, and those who can’t get enough of Hershey Felder may well respond more positively to Hershey Felder In Abe Lincoln’s Piano than this reviewer. I must admit to having found it a dull ride.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
January 9, 2013