Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Eurydice


Hershey Felder
Photo by Christopher Ash
At a grand piano connecting two arched bridges like those that form stripes on the River Seine of Paris, a man with pointed beard and small mustache gently touches keys that generate a musical portrait of the city he loves so much. The mesmerizing music lures its listeners into a state of relaxed contemplation of the chalk-drawn scenes of the City of Light that splash one by one on the projected, stage-filling blackboard behind him.

At the piano, we imagine for a moment that the great French composer whose music gave voice to the impressionistic artistic movement of his period, Claude Debussy, is actually in our presence as his fingers glide over the keyboard and his body sways with an emotional pull hypnotic to watch. But we know that the man before us is the incomparable Hershey Felder, the now-darling of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Bay Area audiences who returns for the fourth straight year yet again to portray another of the world's greatest composers, this time of Claude Debussy in the world premiere of his created and solo-performed Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story.

Unlike his earlier musical and spoken portraits of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Berlin (among others), Hershey Felder's story of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century life of Debussy is largely told through the explorations of an unnamed, nineteen-year-old young man and aspiring pianist. As he wanders through Paris in 1987 on the anniversary of the eve and day of the master's death—March 24 and 25—the young man seeks to take in all the parts of his own beloved Paris that Debussy would have seen. Most of all, he wants to stand touching the gate at the house where the boy's idol composed so many of his compassion-filled pieces.

The youth's own, dear mother once introduced Debussy to him when we was thirteen, and his twenty-four-hour pursuit of honoring the composer is actually recounted by Debussy himself. We are left to imagine the boy through the composer's descriptions and reenactments of the young man's tour of Debussy's Paris. The bemused but adoring master musician takes us through the boy's path of discovery by telling us the parts of his own life as the boy reads about them from a biography he has just acquired. Under the guidance of his longtime trusted director Trevor Hay, Hershey Felder, in the person of Claude Debussy, thus tells a duo story: that of the composer and that of this young man who himself is destined to become a renowned musician, inspired by both the memory of his mother and of the composer she loved so well.

As the story of Debussy unfolds from the pages of the biography our unseen boy reads, music of Debussy's compositions fill the air—sometimes part of the recorded, symphonic music gloriously orchestrated by sound designer Erik Carstensen, but most often through astonishing interval performances at the keyboard by Mr. Felder. As the French titles of the works are told to us in the impressive and authentic accent of the performer, we non-French-speaking folk often have no idea the name of what we are hearing. However, as the ravishing music fills our souls with its rich color, blended harmonies, and singular notes of sustained beauty, names are not at all important in order to understand that we are hearing some of the greatest works ever written.

We soon agree with the words of the composer himself, music is about "feeling," about "dreams." While we may have higher regards than Debussy seemed to have as he speaks a bit cynically of the "pillars and pounds" of German composers like Beethoven, Bach, and his contemporary Wagner, we are certainly ready equally to appreciate his own overall quieter, easier flowing, and yes, dreamlike pieces. We soon enjoy their invitation to relax, breath, and let the spirit of Debussy envelop us with its healing remedies.

It is that music of Debussy that is so much more compelling than the actual story of his life. Much of the biography we hear is about a man who spent too much of his love life in trysts with other men's wives or in marriages/affairs that lasted only long enough to drive the female half to attempted suicide (something that happened twice). From a story standpoint, what we learn bit by bit of the nineteen-year-old and how he came to love and be inspired by the music of Debussy is the more moving and memorable biography of the evening.

But the reigning king and queen of the evening are Debussy's music and the City of Paris. Both are greatly enhanced by the awe-inspiring, gasp-producing lighting and projection design of Christopher Ash. Behind the gas-lit, graceful bridges designed by Hershey Felder himself, the people and scenes the young boys sees and reads about are drawn in projected singular frames and in total, back wall-filling scenes, usually white strokes on the all-black surface. Notre Dame, cafés, jugglers, people crossing the two bridges, a boy's bedroom window looking out over a Paris night—these and a hundred other images bring to full life the stories we hear.

But even more beautiful are the impressionistic images that accompany the music. A canvas full of splashed colors that hint at a scene of nature being illustrated in the notes we hear; an outline of faraway, cloud-engulfed mountains or a river of ripples flowing in eddies; a sky of birds flying in their ballet-like patterns that evolve into a sea of a million fish swimming in patterns only an artist could imagine—all are part of the artwork of Christopher Ash. Ten projectors and a double layer of screens produce images with great depth and dreaminess, including the most beautiful of Paris snowfalls that one can imagine.

The ninety-minute part-biography, part-concert, part-autobiography could not come to a more fitting end than with Hershey Felder playing under a solo spot Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune." As the notes flow ever so lightly through the air like the soft beams of the moon itself, we all feel blessed to have taken a journey with Debussy to the city he loved, guided by the boy before us that he inspired.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story, through May 5, 2019, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets and information are available online at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.


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