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Theatre review: Hershey Felder makes Abe Lincoln’s story sing – Pasadena Sun

Lincoln, An American StoryHershey Felder sits at a piano on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena. Felder, created “Lincoln — An American Story,” a play that he will star in as a young Army surgeon who was in the theater the night of the assassination, performed with a symphony orchestra. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / March 14, 2012)
By Lynne HeffleyMarch 24, 2012 | 3:00 p.m.

The young Army surgeon at Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln‘s assassination remained silent about what he had done to aid the dying president until 1909, too shattered by the event to speak of it until late in life. Dr. Charles Augustus Leale’s eventual account of his experience forms the basis for an unusual new theatrical work: “Lincoln — An American Story, for Actor and Symphony Orchestra,” opening Wednesday at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Created by musician-composer-actor-playwright Hershey Felder, the world premiere production concludes a special engagement of a trio of the multifaceted storyteller’s biographical works.

“Lincoln” follows the playhouse run of “Monsieur Chopin” and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein,” part of Felder’s tour-de-force series that also includes “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” and the Ovation Award-winning “George Gershwin Alone,” reprised last year at the playhouse.

“It’s funny,” Felder said, “people say to me, ‘You’re doing Lincoln? I didn’t know he played. Did he sing too?’”

It’s not such a departure. Felder’s soulful and often humorous channeling of iconic figures from the world of music owes much to the fact that he is a self-proclaimed history buff who relishes the extensive research required to shape his work. It was while he was at the Library of Congress studying up for “Gershwin,” Felder said, that he came across a copy of Leale’s speech, “Lincoln’s Last Hours.”

After decades of silence, and persuaded that history demanded it, Leale gave the address on what would have been Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday.

“It touched me deeply,” Felder said, “and it always interested me, why he kept it quiet. I think I understand. It must have been so hard for him to have witnessed that, and to know that he had the responsibility for the country’s sake to keep the president alive as long as possible so that a safe transference of power could happen.”

The speech stuck “in my brain,” Felder said, “and I just thought that maybe this is the time to tell the story.”

For his previous biographical turns, Felder has performed alone on stage with his Steinway grand. In “Lincoln,” directed by his longtime theatrical collaborator Joel Zwick, Felder will be joined by a 45-piece orchestra led by conductor Alan Heatherington, founding music director of the Illinois-based Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra.

The new show “felt symphonic because the story felt so massive,” said Felder, who composed, orchestrated and adapted the music for the piece.

Rather than attempting to play Lincoln himself, “because I’m not 6 foot 4 and from Kentucky — I’m not 6 foot 4 anywhere,” it was more feasible, he felt, to portray the doctor in a theatrical tapestry woven with period music and the words and poetry of Lincoln, a Civil War soldier and other contemporaries of the era.

The songs of Stephen Foster feature prominently because “Lincoln knew Foster’s music. ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ was his favorite song,” Felder observed, although he omitted original lyrics from songs that reflected the accepted racism of the time, he said. They were “vile, just horrible.”

Felder set the iconic Gettysburg Address to music and uses a poem by Lincoln in the poignant context of the president’s death.

The poet Walt Whitman, who gave comfort to wounded soldiers during the war, also speaks.

One key element was inspired by an event that took place during a specific Civil War battle. Felder prefers not to give away details, “but it’s a great true story. I was so touched by it, and I thought it was so representative of the Civil War.”

Canadian-born Felder, who considers the United States “my adopted home,” divides his time between this country and France, where he lives with his wife, Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada.

His eclectic mix of storytelling and music has its roots in his childhood in Montreal, where Felder began studying piano at age 8. While his initial trajectory led toward a career as a concert pianist, “as a kid, one important thing that I understood was that I was made for talking,” Felder said, laughing, “so I had to figure out how to talk when I played.”

The impulse to create a kind of conversational intimacy with audiences as he performs, no matter how large the theater space, fuels each of Felder’s shows. “I think people want to be engaged, that they don’t want to be talked at, but spoken with. I love that,” he said.

The conversation generally continues after the performance. Felder’s post-show sing-along for “George Gershwin Alone” is a crowd-pleaser, and he sparks audience participation after “Monsieur Chopin” by staying in character as the composer for a Q&A session. His popular “Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Sing-Along” is the performance.

What happens after “Lincoln” was to be determined at the show’s dress rehearsal, Felder said. “The audience part is the only thing that I can discover when it’s actually on stage. Then it either goes or it stays. Right now, it’s a question of how can I involve the audience, and how can an audience do this with an orchestra?

“It also depends on if they’re feeling patriotic at the end of this. What others will do for my freedom resonates in me so deeply, and that’s what I hope is the end game of this piece.

“The great tragedy” is that Lincoln, “this man who cared so deeply and learned so much, didn’t live to see the reunification,” Felder said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes on theater and culture for Marquee.

“Lincoln — An American Story,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Opens Wednesday, March 28. Runs 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends April 7. Regular admission, $54 to $79; premium seating, $100. (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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