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Chicago by John Olson

Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin
World Premiere
Royal George Theatre

Chopin
Hershey Felder
Stephen Sondheim has commented on the difficulty of writing musicals around characters who “don’t sing,” the conceit of musical theatre being that characters begin to sing when their emotions become too large for words alone. Of course, in real life nobody literally sings in such a situation, but there are some people for whom it would not be too great a leap to picture that happening. Highly verbal people who express large emotions in large ways can more easily be imagined singing than those who tend to keep their feelings inside. Is it possible to write a musical drama about a reclusive, shy and guarded person such as the 19th century composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin? Before we answer, let’s consider this ... where in the phrase “musical theater” do we see the word “song”?

In Hershey Felder’s new one-man musical play, Chopin is an intensely emotional man who expresses his feelings through music, not vocally but through the piano. Chopin’s emotions - like grief over the death of his young sister Emilia, the rapture of his own first love are all shown to us through compositions that quite plausibly may have been inspired by these events. The painful ending of his romance with the French novelist George Sand (a pseudonym for Aurore Dudevant) leads into the Prelude in C-Minor No. 28 (from Barry Manilow borrowed for “Could It Be Magic”); expressions of patriotism for his homeland of Poland are followed by the famous Polonaise in A-Flat Major. In such contexts the Chopin pieces are as effective dramatically as many sung moments in traditional musicals, thanks in no small part to Felder’s ability to move seamlessly between acting through the spoken word and acting while performing a piano piece. Though instrumental music has often furthered the narrative and emotional content in musical theatre, it’s typically accompanied by dance, not entirely solo as it is here. In that regard, Mr. Felder has given us an advance in the art form through this piece.

As with his long-running and popular George Gershwin Alone, Felder makes use of his unique combination of abilities as an actor and concert pianist to fully portray an accomplished pianist – from his subject’s tics and mannerisms, insecurities and depression, through his ability to play the composer’s pieces live for the audience. This is a meatier role than Gershwin, though, as Chopin endured much greater heartbreak. Losing his younger sister when she was 15 and he was 17, he left his beloved Poland for good four years later. He was an intensely lonely man who deeply wanted a loving relationship, but his first proposal of marriage at age 26 was rejected by the girl’s parents over concerns about Chopin’s health. His 12-year relationship with Sand ended badly after she humiliated him by obviously modeling a pathetic character in one of her novels on him.

The premise of Monsieur Chopin is that we are attending a piano lesson given by Chopin, one in which he digresses into stories of life. Felder is able to make the conceit work, allowing Chopin to maintain dignity in front of his unseen “students,” while revealing the passions and pain in the events of his life. Felder also does an admirable job of speaking in English in something that sounds credible as a 19th-Century Polish-French accent and still being comprehensible to the audience! The role gives him opportunity for comic relief as well, not only in Chopin’s obsessive cleanliness as he admonishes students to never touch the keyboard with dirty hands, but also in Chopin’s mimicry of the peripheral characters in his life – like the rotund and pompous Viennese critic who criticizes Chopin’s pianistic delicacy, his supporter Franz Liszt, or the boorish but wealthy patron who condescendingly asks him to play “a little ditty” for the man’s party guests.

Felder’s book concisely and clearly provides a wealth of detail about the composer in a mere 82 minutes. It’s a love song for the piano as well, and at times meditation on the metaphysical nature of music, as when Chopin speaks of rhythm: “You can play against it, you can play with it, but it is always there. It is created by God.” In all, Monsieur Chopin incorporates 17 pieces (or excerpts thereof), played by Felder. Production consultant and Chopin scholar Professor Jeffrey Kallberg of the University of Pennsylvania says the pieces are mostly used in the context of the periods of Chopin’s life in which they were written, thought there’s no documentation that they in fact were directly inspired by the events of his life. Audiences less schooled in the classics should have no trouble enjoying these melodies, made even richer by their dramatic settings. Felder wisely saves the “greatest hits” like Prelude in C-Minor, No. 28 and the Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op. 53 for later in the play.

All of this is delivered in a gorgeous period production deftly directed by Joel Zwick (George Gershwin Alone, the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The set designed by Yael Pardess consists of a few pieces of furniture in front of a cyc of billowed curtains, which under various lighting schemes by Richard Norwood provides the feelings of the various times and places of the action. The judicious use of projections by John Boesche adds texture by suggesting settings and providing visuals of the women in Chopin’s life. Costume design by Boguslaw focuses on Chopin’s impressive long formal jacket.

Those who attended George Gershwin Alone will be pleased to learn that Felder again provides the audience with a post-show set and even, believe it or not, a sing-along. He leads the set with a group singing of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” based on Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu in C#. Amazingly, it works. Not only as a standard, but as a pop reflection on Chopin’s life. It’s also a bridge into some lighter stuff like Felder’s imagination of a collaboration between Chopin and Gershwin, and a sing-along of “‘Til’ the End of Time,” the Perry Como standard set to Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat Major.

Felder explains to the audience that Chopin would have approved. Today’s classics were the popular music of their day. Lucky thing there were no jukeboxes then, or M. Chopin would risk the wrath of those who disdain jukebox musicals. This is an ambitious musical play about complex and flawed characters and a most satisfying mix of humor, emotion and simply gorgeous music, impeccably performed by Mr. Felder.

Monsieur Chopin is in an open-ended run at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago. The performance schedule is as follows: Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m., Thursdays at 8:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.

Ticket prices range in price from $35.00 to $39.50 and are available at the Royal George Theatre Box Office, or (312) 988-9000, by calling Ticketmaster at (312) 902-1500, at all Ticketmaster ticket centers (including all Carson Pirie Scott stores, Tower Records, Hot Tix, select Coconuts and fye stores) or online at ticketmaster.com. Groups of 20 or more can receive a discount by calling (312) 977-1710.


Photo: John Zich

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-- John Olson



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