Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Hershey Felder stages a near-perfect Chopin bio, recital

Woody’s Rating: ★★★★★

Hershey Felder portrays “Monsieur Chopin” in one-man show at the Berkeley Rep. Photo by John Zich.

Pianist-actor Hershey Felder stars in a musical bio, “Monsieur Chopin.” Photo by John Zich.

When I watched him transform into George Gershwin in a one-man Berkeley Rep show in June 2013, I’d never heard of Hershey Felder.

Still, I reveled in his virtuosity as a pianist, actor and writer.

And wanted more.

When last fall I witnessed his puissant direction of Mona Golabek as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” I basked in another of his talents.

I craved more.

And when I saw him morph into conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein in June of this year’s “Maestro” musical bio, I couldn’t wait for what came next.

Next is now.

“Monsieur Chopin,” also a solo show, is a bio and concert predictably more romantic than the others — musically, at least.

Some of Fryderyk Chopin’s melodies will be as instantly recognizable by classical music buffs as quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos would be to 49er fans.

But director Joel Zwick, who guided the Gershwin and Bernstein shows as well as the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” proficiently has the keyboardist-playwright intersperse less familiar strains.

“Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin,” which runs at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Aug. 10, transports audiences to the 1848 Paris salon of the “Polish poet of the piano.”

There he hunkers down with an enigmatic, volatile author, George Sand, and entertains painter Eugene Delacroix, a sometimes bff.

And there, I, and an audience that leapt to its collective feet at the two-hour opening night’s conclusion, could appreciate Felder’s piano dexterity and a characterization that overcomes a heavy accent and feels authentic.

His Steinway tones range from ultra-soft to thunderous.

He nimbly plays all or parts of more than a dozen pieces, including three Polonaises (emphasizing their “rise to glory”), a handful of preludes and nocturnes, “Mazurka in A-Flat Major, Opus 50 No. 2,” “Marche Funébre, Opus 35” and “Romanza, E-Minor Concerto.”

Credit goes to lighting designer Richard Norwood for creating instant mood changes, and scenic designer for fashioning a period setting with just an upholstered chair, end tables, mirror and trinket-laden mantle.

Norwood’s pièce de résistance, however, is a gilded frame that borders the stage and heightens what occurs within: historic legitimacy, histrionic biography.

Felder injects heaps of humor, from the play’s get-go to the end of a 30-minute coda with the house lights on (in which he quick-wittedly answers questions from the crowd in character, cleverly improvising occasional anachronistic jests about cell phones and other today-technology).

He’s especially laugh-inducing when Chopin, a child prodigy and adult genius who died prematurely at age 39, sneers at Franz Liszt’s piano playing and works (“scales and arpeggios and so much noise”).

But pathos is even more prevalent.

From the performer’s description of the death of Emilia, Chopin’s sister, to the composer’s frequent sidekick, melancholia (in modern terms, depression).

And from his obsessive hand-washing to his semi-romantic proclivities (focusing on an eight-year relationship with the pseudonymous Sand, a woman he first encounters dressed in man’s clothing and smoking a cigar).

The playwright’s major conceit is to address the audience as if it were a Chopin class, a theatrical device that’s slightly awkward.

But some of his teaching moments are pithy and poetic:

“You must dust the keys with your fingers as if you were dusting them with your breath.”

“Forget your lunatic family and play as if you are playing for God.”

Felder, who’s been a scholar-in-residence at Harvard’s department of music and is married to Kim Campbell, former Canadian prime minister, apparently cannibalized “Monsieur Chopin” from his own, original three-performer construct, “Romantique,” first performed 11 years ago and skewered by critics.

He obviously rewrote, fixed and honed it.

And salvaged it.

So much so that, nine years after its debut, he’s performed “Chopin” more than 800 times to more than 250,000 theatergoers.

So much so that now it’s become a masterwork, a near-perfect integration of recital and biography.

“Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin” plays at the Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, through Aug. 10 and then returns for encore performances Sept. 16-21. Night shows, 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays; matinees, 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $14.50 to $87, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

You can contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net.

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