Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Hershey Felder takes an uncharacteristically sideways look at Lincoln: An American Story
There is a particular art to doing one-man shows. There is a particular art to doing biographical shows. Musician and actor Hershey Felder has made a successful career doing both at once, and writing the pieces, to boot. Last year he arrived at the Pasadena Playhouse, resurrecting his signature portrait of George Gershwin. This year he returned to the Playhouse, and after brief encounters with Chopin and Leonard Bernstein, moved on to premiere a new work: “Lincoln: An American Story.”
Lincoln is a step away from what Felder is known for, and this is both the interesting challenge and the Achilles heel of the production. Up until now Felder’s work has always been the story of a man who is, at least in part, defined by the music he makes. It has also always first-person. Here neither would be appropriate.
Instead, Felder uses as his foundation a speech given at a ceremony for Lincoln’s 100th birthday by Dr Charles Augustus Leale. As a 23-year-old army doctor who happened to be at Ford’s Theater, Leale was the man in charge of tending the great president on the night he was shot. This speech was his only description of that set of events. As such, the view of Lincoln’s world is through a keyhole, and a non-musical one at that.
What Felder has chosen to do is to write the entire tale a sound track. A full orchestra appears on stage behind him. He sings authentic folk songs with their original lyrics as they would have been sung in Lincoln’s time. Those folk songs synchronize with the story fairly well, but much of the rest of the music varies from somewhat anachronistic to superfluous. Elements of Gershwin, and of other cultural tonalities which sound less of blues and more of klezmer, take the audience out of the time being portrayed. He even sets a fascinating poem of Lincoln’s, presaging his death, to music. It were better read.
And there are also odd glitches in storytelling, perhaps in an attempt to keep the portrait simple. For example, he quotes the Emancipation Proclamation, but leaves off part of what it said. Lincoln is therefore praised for saying “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” without the qualifier in that document that those persons had to be in sections “the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States”. In a time when our heroes are better for their human failings, this is an important warp: not all slaves were, then, freed. The ones in his home state of Kentucky certainly were not.
Still, the story of the young doctor forced to do the impossible (Mrs. Lincoln orders him to save her husband), whose field-honed skills lead to battles with established “medical” practice, is a fascinating one. If only he had been content with that, right down to the doctor’s sad and unheralded departure from the house after Lincoln’s death – one of defeat for a man who felt he had not kept his promise. Instead, Felder finds it necessary to end the piece quoting a ghostly Lincoln who rises up on the Ford’s Theater stage to deliver both the Gettysburg Address and his 2nd Inaugural. Suddenly we’re in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, right down to the flag projected in the background.
What Felder needs to relearn is his own strength, which comes from the intimacy of his portraits. This one has that potential too – a singular view of an iconic moment in history. There is no need to remind us in grand gestures who Lincoln was (even if one little lady behind me asked her partner if this was the one who chopped down the cherry tree). Folk and battle songs would enhance this piece alone. There is no need to swamp emotions with sound, as if the audience wouldn’t pick up on them from the story line. Certainly no more than a small string combo would be needed for the folk music.
In short “Lincoln: An American Story” is a stretch for Felder, but could be a wonderful theatrical moment. Instead it goes for being inspirational, and as such steps with both feet into gluey cliches and overkill. Mr. Felder is a remarkable man, but either this needs serious reworking or there is a need for an about-face back to the kind of subjects who fit his more usual format.
What: “Lincoln: An American Story” When: through April 7, 8 p.m. today through Saturday, with an additional 4 p.m. performance on Saturday as well. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $54 – $100 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org