BWW Review: ABE LINCOLN'S PIANO Needs Fine-tuning
Hershey Felder in Abe Lincoln's Piano
A New Musical Play
Book by Hershey Felder; Music by Stephen Foster, Hershey Felder and others; Directed by Trevor Hay; Scenic Design, Hershey Felder & Trevor Hay; Lighting Design, Christopher Rynne; Sound Design, Erik Carstensen; Projection Design, Andrew Wilder, Greg Sowizdrzal, & Lawrence Siefert; Scenic Decoration, Megan Maiya, Jordan Hay, & Emma Hay; Costume Design, Abigail Caywood; Dramaturg, Cynthia Caywood, PhD.; Production Manager, Erik Carstensen
Performances through May 31 by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org
Hershey Felder returns to ArtsEmerson for his third solo musical theater piece after charming and enlightening local audiences with George Gershwin Alone and Maestro: Leonard Bernstein in recent years. This time he departs from staging the lives of genius composers to delve into the tragic death of a giant of American history by blending Civil War-era songs and first-person stories in an imaginative retelling of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Felder and Director Trevor Hay also combine their talents for the show's scenic design, opting to dot the stage with artifacts evocative of a museum display. In fact, the conceit Felder employs in his book is that he is a docent leading us on a tour at the Chicago History Museum, enthusiastically telling us the back story of Abe Lincoln's Piano. After some mumbo jumbo about the docent's Aunt Nettie being a medium and visiting the White House with another woman/medium who played the piano for the President and Mrs. Lincoln, the guide points out other memorabilia. There's the table where the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and a bloody sheet where Abe's head rested until he died. Felder dons the Union soldier's coat of the doctor who treated Abe after he was shot and, like Frosty the Snowman putting on the black top hat, there must be some magic in the tunic because he then inhabits the character of the physician.
Dr. Charles Leale, a 23-year old Army surgeon, was a patron at Ford's Theater on the night of April 14, 1865, when the actor John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the head, and was the first to arrive at the President's box to administer care. Felder as Leale gives a detailed account of what transpired leading up to that moment and in the chaotic aftermath of the event. It is highly dramatic and Felder has the capacity to bring us to the edge of our seats, even though we obviously know the unfortunate outcome.
Before he arrives at that fateful night, we are presented with Leale's narrative as background for how he became a doctor and how he developed his love of theater. Throughout this portion of the show, there is a smattering of Stephen Foster songs and a Jim Crow song and dance routine to demonstrate minstrelsy popular in the mid-19th century. Some of the music is recorded and Felder plays some of the music on the Steinway sitting center stage. His piano skills are impeccable and some of his flourishes and runs on the keys bring to mind another showman, the late Liberace.
Abe Lincoln's Piano features Felder doing more talking and less playing than in his earlier one-man shows. The connection between the piano and the primary narrative felt forced, as if they were struggling to find a way to justify the title of the show. I would have liked Felder to spend more time at the keyboard, especially after hearing him play the final two selections, exquisite variations on "America, The Beautiful" and "The Star Spangled Banner." If the goal is to celebrate the sixteenth president and American music of the era, focusing on his achievements and integrity of purpose would be a cause for singing, but we learn more about Leale than Lincoln on this journey.
Photo credit: Eighty Eight LLC (Hershey Felder)