4:45 PM CDT, March 11, 2013
Various impulses fuel Hershey Felder, the highly distinctive musician and performer who has been a regular in Chicago over the past decade, and whose self-penned entertainments defy obvious categorization.
He's a populist determined to bring the lives and work of great composers to a broad audience with a level of accessibility typically frowned upon by the classical establishment. He's also an inveterate, old-fashioned pedagogue, happy to position himself in the gap between the traditional show and the illustrated artistic lecture. And, of course, he's a showman, which explains why all of his shows to date have had himself at the center of the stage. Felder is fueled by his audience. No shame in that.
The latest curious Felder enterprise, "An American Story for Actor and Orchestra," does not want for ambition and it certainly is unpredictable. In this instance, Felder plays the 90-year-old Dr. Charles Leale, the Union Army surgeon who is best known (well, only known) for finding himself in the presidential box at the Ford's Theatre on the night Abraham Lincoln was shot. Leale, who was 23 at the time, did his best to save the president, acting upon the urgings of Mary Todd Lincoln. Felder obviously became interested in Leale's story, which Leale penned for posterity as "Lincoln's Last Hours," and he takes elements from his life to introduce a variety of American music of the 19th century, especially that of Stephen Foster, the shrewd composer of such atmospheric ditties as "Old Folks at Home" and "My Old Kentucky Home," even though he barely knew anything about the real Old South.
The audience does not just get Felder in a wig, but a live, 10-piece orchestra behind the drapes, playing the music of Foster and other tunes associated with the Christy Minstrels and vaudeville entertainment of the era.
To some extent, Felder is jumping on the current Lincoln bandwagon (the piece includes some of the great man's speeches and draws upon his stature for its emotional climax). But it's certainly material that one does not normally hear at the theater, not least because Foster and the Christy Minstrels are so problematic. Felder navigates his way carefully through all of that, admiring Foster's melodic compositions but also noting the artifice inherent in their creation.
American history geeks — especially fans of 19th-century populist American music — will find much of interest, delivered with Felder-esque aplomb in a theater made to look far more elegant than usually is the case.
This piece is new to the Felder repertoire and needs more work. One problem is that Felder, although a very enigmatic performer and a solid vocalist, is not exactly credible as a 90 year old. He seems to drop his subject's age much of the time, but it is never quite clear where are the lines between present-tense narration and flashback. Similarly, Felder needs to better frame a character of whom few in his audience will have heard — we get to the Lincoln stuff late in the 85-minute show, which leaves you wondering how and why this fellow is the right connective tissue for an exploration of this music and period, even though he appears to have had a few famous folks in his care. Scrambling the chronology would be one useful way forward, or weaving this music into Lincoln's fateful last day in a more organic fashion, or otherwise making the case for why Leale, a footnote to American history, is a cipher for American complexity.
When: Through April 14
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $60-$65 at 312-988-9000 or theroyalgeorgetheatre.com
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