Photograph: Courtesy of Noreen Heron & Associates
Hershey Felder’s previous shows—exquisite mergers of storytelling and musicianship that turned the lives of Frederic Chopin, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein into powerhouse one-man shows—were all punctuated, even driven, by the compositions of the title characters. But in his latest show as Lincoln’s doctor, Dr. Charles Leale, who tended to the 16th president in his final hours, Felder strays from his usual formula.
Throughout the intense 80-minutes of An American Story for Actor and Orchestra, he doesn’t go near a keyboard. Backed by a 10-piece orchestra, Felder weaves the music and poetry of the era—Stephen Douglas and Walt Whitman among them—into the story of Leale’s life. It runs from his earliest memories to the traumatic hours he spent at Lincoln’s deathbed. Really, An American Story is a dramatic, musical tour of 19th Century America.
Felder spins the tale from the perspective of a 90-year-old Leale, delving into his relationship with his dad, his work as a wartime surgeon and how, at a mere 23 years old, he took charge of Lincoln’s care in the wake of the shooting at Ford’s Theatre. Assuming the roles of assassin John Wilkes Booth, Leale, and Lincoln himself, Felder nimbly morphs from music to prose, creating a pastiche that’s as sonically rich as it is historically intriguing.
Perhaps his biggest risk is tracing Leale’s formative influences back to the heyday of minstrel shows where Leale’s dad exposed the young boy to the repulsiveness of the country’s ingrained racism. Although Felder doesn’t don blackface, he still manages to be squirm-inducing as he depicts the despicable entertainment in all its Stepin Fetchit, “yessuh massah” ugliness.
Festooned with patriotic bunting and period posters advertising Our American Cousin, scenic designer David Bluess transformed the Royal George into a replica of a Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s death, literally immersing the audience in the architecture of Lincoln’s last moments. The show reaches its tragic apex as Felder reenacts the scene playing out on stage when gunshots echoed throughout the theatre.
An American Story is, of course, a tragedy. But Felder ends it with a message of transcendent hope, delivering the whole of the Gettysburg Address with understated defiance and thrilling integrity.