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Hershey Felder tips his hat to Abraham Lincoln in ‘American Story’

Actor composer pianist Hershey Felder appears his show 'An American Story for Actor Orchestra.'  | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Actor, composer and pianist Hershey Felder appears in his show "An American Story for Actor and Orchestra." | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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◆ In previews; opens March 10 and runs through April 14

◆ Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted

◆ Tickets, $60-$65

◆ (312) 988-9000;

Now for something completely different courtesy of Hershey Felder, the actor, playwright, composer, Steinway pianist, producer and globetrotting impresario who, since 2004, has visited Chicago in the guise of George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein, and, along the way, has attracted a large, loyal following. And you can’t say his new adventure isn’t timely either, perching as it does atop the stovepipe hat of that man of the moment — President Abraham Lincoln.

Felder, the Canadian-born performer (who proudly notes that he has spent most of his adult life and professional career in this country) is now returning to Chicago’s Royal George Theatre with a new production, “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra.” And following a limited run of the show, he will put on his producer’s hat and bring in three additional one-person shows by other talents who combine theater and music.

Set in New York City in 1932, “An American Story” finds Felder, who wrote both the book and score for the show, playing the distinguished Dr. Charles Leale. Ninety years old, he is thinking back to the most momentous evening in his life — April 11, 1865 — when, as an unknown Union Army medic of 23, he became the first person to reach the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth.

Felder based his work on “Lincoln’s Last Hours” — Leale’s 22-page account of the events that was written in 1865 and submitted to a commission of the House of Representatives investigating the shooting. Believed to be lost, the document was “rediscovered” in 2012 in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

For his score, Felder drew on the work of that hugely melodic American composer, Stephen Foster, master of parlour and minstrel songs (including “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” Oh! Susanna”), who died just a year before Lincoln did. It also uses some of Lincoln’s own words.

“Unlike the musicians I’ve portrayed, Dr. Leale was a man who was at peace with himself,” said the 44-year-old Felder. “Aside from a 100th anniversary birthday celebration for Lincoln in 1909, he never spoke about the assassination or his role in treating Lincoln.

“Just six weeks before the fateful event, Leale had graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York. He would marry well — to the daughter of an industrialist — and go on to establish The Floating Hospital in New York, which served impoverished children from the city. He also served as a surgeon in World War I. He was a man of humility, and one devoted to public service.”

Leale, as it happens, also was a man with considerable theatrical knowledge, passed down to him from his father who took him to see many productions when he was a child — from Shakespeare, to opera singer Jenny Lind, to minstrel shows.

“He was not sheltered from the messages of those minstrel shows, either,” said Felder. “Leale’s father left him to think about just what was going on in them, and how threatening they were on the issue of race.”

“In many ways there was something Zelig-like about Leale,” said Felder, who has incorporated the original Jim Crow character into his show. (“The term ‘Jim Crow’ actually derived from the name used by a struggling New York actor who heard a crippled black man singing, and proceeded to turn him into the offensive stereotype we now know,” explained Felder.)

And about that fateful night that Lincoln was shot: “Leale was seated just five rows behind the presidential box. He ran to help Lincoln, and when a hysterical Mary Todd asked him who he was, and he told her he was a Union Army surgeon, she put him in charge. Lincoln was paralyzed and struggling to breathe, and Leale eventually found a large blood clot near the back of his skull that he knew had to be removed. He also realized the president’s condition was ‘mortal,’ though he was moved to a neearby building and hung on for another nine hours.”

As is always the case with Felder’s shows, “An American Story” has gone through a couple of incarnations.

“We did tryouts in San Diego and at the Pasadena Playhouse, and since then I’ve pared down the 45-piece orchestra to a more subtle 11 pieces that allows for more solo sounds,” Felder said.

Felder’s limited run will be followed (in an order still to be determined) by three shows he admires, and has made part of an informal “touring circuit.” To be sure, they promise to be a huge improvement on recent offerings in the 440-seat mainstage space of the Royal George.

They include: “I Found My Horn,” a London import starring Jonathan Guy Lewis (“Coronation Street”), written by author, journalist and playwright Jasper Reese and directed by Harry Burton, that tells the gently comic story of a middle-aged divorcee who finds a whole new reason to live by rediscovering his childhood French horn; “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” which has had successful runs in Los Angeles and Boston, and stars pianist-storyteller Mona Golabek telling the true story of her mother, a young concert pianist who survived World War II; and “Lem,” a new musical about fathers and sons, devised by Felder, and starring Christopher Lemmon playing his own father, the stage and film star Jack Lemmon.

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