Multitalented Hershey Felder gets the audience involved with his ‘Great American Songbook Sing-Along’
By Jana J. Monji 03/15/2012
Hershey Felder, a one-man music festival who just completed his “Monsieur Chopin,” is presently in the middle of his limited run of “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” and on March 27 will be giving a preview performance of “Lincoln: An American Story” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Felder’s catalogue of shows featuring one person — himself — and a piano have taken the Montreal-born musician from Broadway to London’s West End. Here in Southern California, he’s received a Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Musical and Best Actor for his “George Gershwin Alone” performance, also at the Playhouse.
In a recent phone interview, the affable Felder commented that over at least the past six years he hasn’t produced just one production at a given time. Although each presentation features him and a piano, each historical figure he portrays — from Beethoven to Gershwin to Chopin to Bernstein — had his own style that was unique for their times.
“Bernstein is a great crowd-pleaser,” Felder said of one of his newer shows.
Another crowd-pleaser is his sing-along, which he’ll be performing Monday at the Playhouse.
“In the old days, that’s what people did before there were recordings and they were walking around plugged into an iPod,” Felder said. “We’ve lost the form of it. There is a remnant of that tradition and people do love it.”
Felder’s love of his adopted country shines through in “Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Sing-Along,” which begins with Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and the Gershwin brothers, and continues with Bernstein and composer Stephen Sondheim. In the course of the evening, the audience sings along with songs from “The Sound of Music,” “Showboat,” Fiddler on the Roof” and other selections.
The songbook and Felder’s classical portrayals may seem like nicely packaged history lessons, but Felder insists that he is only “sharing something I love. “
There’s no mission or message, he explained. But there’s plenty to consider and each visual and auditory portrait develops “organically” with his team, which includes director Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”).
Felder’s piece on Leonard Bernstein — an internationally known conductor, composer, author, teacher and TV personality — is far-reaching, covering sounds of the entire 20th century.
His latest work, “Lincoln: An American Story,” is based on material Felder found while researching his Gershwin play at the Library of Congress. In April 1865, Dr. Charles Augustus Leale was a 23-year-old army surgeon who happened to be at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was gunned down. He told his story, his view of John Wilkes Booth’s killing of Lincoln, just once — when he was 63 and speaking before a gathering of army friends at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City on what would have been Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909.
One might wonder how one person playing so many roles could keep everything in place. Felder admits that it’s hard work sometimes.
“At 6 p.m., I begin working on my night piece,” he explained. “Up until then I’m working on Lincoln. I have the script in my coat pocket and, rather than take a car, I go by foot and I do my lines. I sound like I’m criminally insane, busy talking to myself.”
Before each performance, “I look down at the costume. The costume just reminds me of who I am,” Felder said. But then, “I do have a fear of using the wrong opening line at the wrong place when I’m doing more than one show,” he added. “Before I go on, I repeat the very first line to make sure the first line is the right one. I have a horror of opening with the wrong opening line.”
For Felder, the clothes are what make the man. “Each costume fits differently and each one feels like the character,” he said. “I live in Paris [part-time] and finding real patterns of the day is very easy.”
For the Lincoln piece, his uniform was easy to find because so many people are interested in doing reenactments of that time period. The clothing adds a “wonderful bit of magic,” he said.
“Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Sing-Along” is at 8 p.m. Monday at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” continues until Sunday. “Lincoln: An American Story” previews March 27, opens March 28 and runs through April 7. For show times and ticket prices, call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.