Chris Lemmon pays homage to his legendary dad, Jack Lemmon, in one-man show
Hedy Weiss Sun-times THEATER critic May 8, 2014 12:56PM
Hershey Felder and Chris Lemmon at the Royal George Theatre. Peter Holderness/Sun-Times Media
‘Jack Lemmon Returns,’ in previews; opens May 12 and runs through June 1. Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted. $55. (312) 988-9000; www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.
VIDEO ONLINE: Chris Lemmon and Hershey Felder talk about the show with Hedy Weiss at the Royal George Theatre.
Updated: May 8, 2014 12:58PM
To moviegoers in the second half of the 20th century, Jack Lemmon (1925-2001), was something of a one-man catalogue of Hollywood at its finest. He starred in more than 60 films including such classics as “Mr. Roberts,” “The Apartment,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Odd Couple,” “The China Syndrome,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Grumpy Old Men,” and he won two Academy Awards along the way.
To Chris Lemmon, now 59 — and like his father, both an actor and pianist — Jack Lemmon was “Dad” — the man who first taught him to play piano, and introduced him to such famous friends as Gregory Peck, Shirley MacLaine and James Stewart. Although his parents (his mother was actress Cynthia Stone, who died in 1988) divorced early, and there were painful periods apart, his father was a crucial presence in his life — a man, he says, “I still miss every day of my life.”
Lemmon’s intensely personal memoir of his dad, “A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father,” was published in 2006, and was filled with first-person tributes from the likes of Blake Edwards, Andy Garcia, Julie Andrews, Tony Curtis, Neil Simon, MacLaine and others. The readings he did during book tours for that memoir eventually grew into what he describes as “something of a cabaret act.” But it needed a total transformation to become a full-fledged one-man show. And that is when he turned to Hershey Felder.
Felder, of course, is that practiced master of fusing storytelling with music, whose own one-man shows about George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven and Chopin have enjoyed great success in Chicago during the past decade, and whose talents as a writer-director-producer were evident in last season’s hit, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Mona Golabek’s moving one-woman show, which will open Off Broadway in July.
So now comes the world premiere of “Jack Lemmon Returns,” in which Chris Lemmon portrays his father, Jack Lemmon, in a play-with-music that will open May 12 at the Royal George Theatre. With a grand piano center stage, and a collage of archival photos that suggest both the father-son relationship, and the iconic movie roles, the show takes a roughly chronological path through Jack’s life — following the actor from the moment he left his hometown of Newton, Mass. to head to New York and “save Broadway,” urged on by a show-biz minded mother and despite the misgivings of a serious, business-minded father. It also suggests how Lemmon refused to be pigeonholed into being either a comedian or a serious dramatic artist. And it looks at the darker side of success and the glamorous life, including two decades of serious drinking.
“The one thing I’ve learned in working on both my own shows, and those of both Mona and Chris, is that you deal with what is in front of you and highlight each person’s strengths,” said Felder. “I can find my way into the characters of great musicians and try to discover what made them tick. Mona and Chris both tell very personal stories, with Mona a concert pianist who had relatively little acting experience, and Chris an actor first, but also a trained musician. The key in all cases is to find the best way to tell an honest, human story. Of course you must be crafty in the process. You also must listen to the audience, because they tell you what works and what doesn’t, even if they don’t have the solutions.”
For Felder, 45 (who confesses his first full awareness of Jack Lemmon came with the releases of “The China Syndrome” and “Grumpy Old Men”), Jack Lemmon’s appeal was rooted in the fact that “while he was handsome, he didn’t look like a matinee idol, but more like a real person. And of course there was his love for the American standards, from Gershwin, to the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross song “Whatever Lola Wants,” all played in a loose jazz style [Lemmon was a self-taught pianist], that hints of Frank Sinatra.”
Chris Lemmon (who has written his own piano arrangements for this show), studied classical piano and composition, as well as theater at the California Institute of the Arts. But as he explains it: “While I knew I was a good pianist, I also knew I wasn’t a great concert-level pianist. And I also was acting all through school, so that became my focus.”
Meanwhile, Felder, a man of many talents — with a unique gift for being able to juggle multiple projects at once — is continuing to perform his one-man show about Franz Liszt, the flamboyant 19th century pianist. He also has begun work on his newest one-man show, about Irving Berlin, set for its world premiere at Los Angeles’ Geffen Theatre in November. It will trace the remarkable story of the man called “America’s composer” — from his childhood escape from the anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia to New York’s Lower East Side, and on to his penning of such songs as “God Bless America,” “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” If all goes as planned, the show will come to Chicago in the spring of 2015.
And that’s not all.
“I’m planning to write a musical,” said Felder. “I hope to collaborate with the veteran foreign correspondent and journalist Joshua Hammer, adapting his book, ‘Chosen by God: A Brother’s Journey’.”