‘An American Story’ a triumph at every turn
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticemail@example.com March 11, 2013 1:56PM
‘AN AMERICAN STORY FOR ACTOR AND ORCHESTRA’
When: Through April 14
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 988-9000; theroyalgeorgetheatre.com
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Updated: April 13, 2013 6:10AM
As you take your seat at the Royal George Theatre for “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra,” Hershey Felder’s unique meditation on this country’s resilient spirit, the devastation of the Civil War, and the power of theater and music to communicate both ethical values and emotion, you might very well get the feeling you’ve been dropped into Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on that fateful night of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
The balconies of the theater have been draped in patriotic bunting. The heavy, dark green velvet curtain that frames the proscenium is vintage Victorian. And there, seated on an old red velvet chair, is Felder in the guise of the 90-year-old Charles Augustus Leale. Nearly seven decades earlier, as a Union Army medic, newly graduated from New York’s Bellevue Hospital Medical College, Leale just happened to be in the audience, and became the doctor who diligently attended to Lincoln during the nine hours he clung to life.
For the next 90 minutes, Felder holds his audience in thrall with a seamless mixture of memory, music and poetry. As Leale, he looks back on all that led up to the moment that clearly shaped his soul — but one that he refused to let alter his life by turning him into a celebrity.
More importantly, Felder evokes a defining period in our history, using all the tools of the master storyteller he displayed in previous one-man shows about George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven. This time around he does not sit at the piano, but he has composed a lushly beautiful score laced with the songs of Lincoln’s contemporary, Stephen Foster, and exquisitely played by a mostly shrouded onstage orchestra. The score functions almost like a film soundtrack.
Felder’s style is very much his own. Some might describe it as the antithesis of “hip,” but that is his charm, and 10 minutes into the show you will see an audience held at rapt attention. Here is the complete “auteur” — in total control not only of his self-penned script, music and performance but every element of his production’s style. And whether suggesting the broad strokes of a racist minstrel show featuring the Jim Crow character, or the Booth family’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” or the rambunctious comic acting in “Our American Cousin” (the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot), or the plaintive notes of Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” he captures the voices and the attitudes of an entire historical era. We also get a multifaceted portrayal of Lincoln, with his passion for maintaining the union, whose healing words in his second inaugural address, “with malice toward none, with charity for all” are emphasized here. (The only small distraction is that Felder’s vocal intonations for Leale can sound more Lower East Side than blue-blooded patrician New Yorker.)
Concertmaster Kevin Case’s impeccable work with his 10-piece orchestra, and the exceptionally artful projections of Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal add to the magic.
A Canadian by birth, Felder brings a fervent pro-Americanism to this show. He may frame it with that Depression-era anthem, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” but with Leale as his spokesman he makes it clear he’d invest his last nickel in this country.