Thursday, March 29, 2012

review - Lincoln - An American Story

Lincoln - An American Story
For Actor and Symphony Orchestra
written & performed by Hershey Felder
directed by Joel Zwick
Pasadena Playhouse
through April 7 only

Hershey Felder has proven himself a virtuoso musician at the piano over the last fifteen years portraying Chopin, Beethoven, Bernstein and Gershwin, among others, and now with his original composition Lincoln for symphony orchestra and actor, he proves just how well he can sing and tell a story...without stepping one foot toward the piano. Playing Charles Augustus Leale, a Union army surgeon who attended the fallen Abraham Lincoln on August 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre, D.C., he guides us into a privately experienced world of loss and grief that soon affected an entire nation... that would have to let go of the brilliant politician/statesman, who cared so dearly for his people. In fact, the strong parallel between Leale and Lincoln is that they both cared tirelessly for the human condition. Now on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 7 only, Felder's Lincoln - An American Story is a beautifully written and heartfelt narrative to which every American should bear witness.

At the start of the 70 minute play Leale takes us first to New York where at age 23 he served, in the capacity of a self-proclaimed average doctor, the wounded soldiers at Bellevue, as the Civil War raged around him and fires threatened to burn down prominent city buildings. John Wilkes Booth and his two brothers, Edwin being the eldest and most famous of the acting trio, were doing a benefit performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar on Broadway, which Leale attended. He had a chance to see the overzealous Booth in action on stage, and a year later, he witnessed Booth jump to the stage from Lincoln's box at Ford's Theatre after the fatal shot. That real life act brings Booth to chillingly larger than life proportions, more vividly monstrous, as we absorb Leale's re-enactment. All of the images he describes play on the emotions, like the hundreds of soldiers dying in hospital beds, and it is his failure as a doctor to save them that is so affecting. The dark intolerable atmosphere of war sets the tone and his feelings grow increasingly intense until the evening of April 14, the very last straw, when everything falls apart. Holding the hand that signed the Emancipation Proclamation, cradling the President's head, trying to make him comfortable and then ...not succeeding in saving his life. While Felder emotes as Leale, the 45-piece symphony orchestra behind him enhances the entire effect with its richly majestic and powerfully sorrowful music. There is no finer example that music does indeed generate an overwhelming catharsis.
The songs intoned by Felder include "Oh Susannah", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Beautiful Dreamer" and there are several spoken poems, even one by Lincoln himself, foreshadowing his own death in a dream the previous night. Composer Felder has written a musical composition that is gorgeously evocative of that tumultuous historical time period and truly American in texture.
On the centennial of Lincoln's birth, Leale, who lived on to be 90, spoke of "Lincoln's last hour" for the first time publicly. The man who had called himself average was indeed the unspoken courageous victor, one, who despite the fact that he could not save the man, did so much more than anyone else and one who vowed to live out the dream of equality that Lincoln envisioned. In this his Lincoln - An American Story, Hershey Felder the actor, guided by Joel Zwick's generously even direction, plays with great sensitivity, showing a seldom seen compassionate side of his artistic temperament.

5 out of 5 stars

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