Lincoln, an American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra

Through April 7th at Pasadena Playhouse

Reviewed by Dale Reynolds 
Making history come alive for an audience – whether in the visual arts, books, dance, plays, or films – is difficult requiring an understanding of a period and a clearer understanding of why we want to explore that part of history – whether ours or someone else’s.

So, the highly esteemed pianist/actor, Hershey Felder, has a new show that allows him to be only the actor and not the player of music.  Building on his reputation as a meticulous researcher of his subjects, whether it be Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, or Bernstein, Felder has now added an extraordinary character, the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

What this new show, Lincoln: An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra,  in its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, has in common with what has illuminated his previous shows is an unerring ear for melody, harmony and rhythm, in words as well as music.  Felder has taken American tunes and has woven them into a symphonic whole, either punctuated with his new-to-us tale, or music that gently underpins his message.

What Felder discovered is a true story – mostly unknown to non-academics – of the last nine hours of Mr. Lincoln’s life.  Dr. Charles Augustus Leale (1842-1932), then 23 and a recent graduate of a New York medical hospital, wanted to attend Washington, D.C.’s Ford Theatre on the evening that the President would be attending with Mrs. Lincoln, to see the famous comedy, Our American Cousin.

What he got was more than anyone could have bargained for: a front row view of the actor, John Wilkes Booth, who, after shooting Lincoln, jumping from the presidential box, breaking his leg, and limping off stage, in front of the horrified actors and the stunned audience.  Leale rushed into the box and took over the position of head surgeon and had Mr. L. removed across the street to a bed, where at 7:22am, April 15th, 1865, the great emancipator died, his hand in Dr. Leale’s hand.

All this is acted-out in front of a proscenium curtain of green velvet, with swag cords and a lit picture of George Washington, just as it looked then in Ford’s Theatre, semi-hiding the orchestra.  Dressed in a Union Officer’s uniform, Felder sits in a replica of the red-velvet rocking chair Lincoln was sitting in when Booth shot him.

Under the astute direction of Joel Zwick, the entire production – actor, orchestra (45-musicians, under the baton of Alan Heatherington), lighting (Chris Rynne), the overall scenic design of David Busess & Trevor Hay, sound design of Erik Carstensen and of the solid work of many others, it is a riveting 90-minutes (no intermission).

This is very definitely Felder’s show:  written, composed and arranged by the Maestro, based on traditional American folk songs and poetry (some by Lincoln himself), Stephen Foster, John Howard Payne and Henry Bishop, making the most of his limited acting skills, with a pleasant singing voice, and down-to-earth knowledge of  both Lincoln and Leale’s lives.

This is an exciting show, worthy of notice from historians, music-lovers and general audiences alike.  And it’s a noble addition to Felder’s repertoire.

Lincoln plays through April 7th, 2012, at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101 Tickets:  (626) 792-8672.  For more info: http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.com/ticket-and-location-info/