Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
When: through April 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Hershey Felder has carved out a niche crafting portraits of famous dead composers, and Chicago audiences have enjoyed his individualistic interpretations of George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leonard Bernstein in one-man shows he penned and performed — including playing piano with great aplomb.
Now Felder has created something completely different. “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra” still is a solo outing, but a 10-piece orchestra replaces the piano, and the subject is Dr. Charles Leale, a physician few people except Abraham Lincoln buffs have heard of and whose main claim to fame was being the first person to reach the mortally wounded President’s box at Ford’s Theatre on April 11, 1865.
Drawing on Leale’s own account, “Lincoln’s Last Hours,” and the President’s speeches, the playwright-composer-actor-singer aims not only to resurrect the good doctor but also to incorporate the music of the period, particularly that of Stephen Foster, whose songs, such as “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Oh! Susanna,” conjure up an Old South he never visited. Felder weaves together two basic themes: Dr. Leale’s medical experience and a love of theater instilled by his father who took him to everything from Shakespeare’s plays to minstrel shows (to make him understand how racist they were). He also recounts a brief history of the Booth family of actors complete with illustrations.
“An American Story…” starts in New York City in 1932 with the 90-year-old Dr. Leale reminiscing about his past. As he works his way back to that fateful night when he was a 23-year-old Union Army medic charged by Mary Todd Lincoln with keeping her husband alive, we learn about his education at Bellevue Hospital Medical College and his efforts to save soldiers in the field (he served in both the Civil War and World War I). Much later, he established The Floating Hospital in New York, which served impoverished children.
When he gets to the heart of the evening, the nine hours after John Wilkes Booth shot the President, the narrative naturally goes into some detail. Besides repeatedly removing the blood clot on the back of Lincoln’s head and having him moved out of the theater and across the street, Dr. Leale could do little except try to comfort the dying man. And in this account he did that with … you guessed it … soothing songs.
The risk with this kind of script is that it comes across as a lecture most suitable for school children, and I was worried that that’s all we were in for. The fact that Felder wasn’t the least bit convincing as a 90 year old (gray ponytail notwithstanding) exacerbated my concerns, but once he dropped that pretense presumably because he was going into the flashbacks, I started to get caught up in the story.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the production is greatly helped by two things. One is the terrific orchestra under concertmaster Kevin Case. The music remains in balance with Felder’s singing and speaking even though it occasionally gets rather sentimental or pretentious. The other is the projections by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal. They range from images of the White House that look three dimensional to imaginative evocations of the minstrel shows and add immensely to an evening that easily could be visually boring.
Speaking of adding to the evening, the entire Royal George Theatre has been decorated to evoke the period — maybe even Ford’s Theatre specifically — and kudos go to everyone involved in that inspired decision.