For a writer, actor, and singer, Hershey Felder is a heck of a pianist. That much was obvious in his first one-man show, the biographical George Gershwin Alone, where Felder found unexpected colors and textures in everything from well-worn pop standards to hoary old Rhapsody in Blue—but when it came to talking and singing, he was disabled by his own stuffy acting, an indecisive voice, and a script that ranged from dutiful to melodramatic to inexplicable. After the popularity of Gershwin Alone, its star capitalized on the good thing he had going. He created three more one-man shows about famous musicians—Chopin, Beethoven, and Bernstein—catering to an older, well-heeled demographic and showing off his exemplary piano playing.
In his new venture, An American Story for Actor and Orchestra, currently at the Royal George Theatre, he's fatally altered the formula. This time he's not a musician. He's Charles Leale, an army surgeon and the first doctor to tend to Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination. Felder acts and sings his way through a bulky, unsubtle script to the accompaniment of a ten-piece orchestra. He never touches a piano. The results are about what you'd expect.
Actually, they're a bit better. This time out, Felder's less full of himself.
But he hasn't replaced his missing self-importance with much of anything, which makes for a vacant performance. Whether describing Leale's early years under a father who taught racial tolerance and "respect for all life" or minutely detailing Leale's efforts to comfort a mortally wounded Lincoln, Felder displays a near-total absence of inner life. His singing amounts primarily to shaping well-formed vowels and staring plaintively. Director Trevor Hay has him relate most episodes at the same pace, and with the same weight, until eventually it seems as if Leale is reliving a term paper rather than his own life.
Felder begins in 1932. His Leale—now 90 years old, alone, and semi-impoverished—is weighed down as much by the deprivations of the Great Depression as by the mass of ridiculously overpainted gray hair on his head. Like his father, Leale's got a pedagogical ax to grind. The doomsayers think the Depression presages the collapse of civilization, but he's here to tell us about a historical mess that was really serious. And he'll show us that if we Americans got through that, we can get through anything.
But first he has to spend 45 minutes recounting his life story, insisting that "every part of this play" leads ineluctably to his horrible rendezvous with fate. Soon Felder dons a military coat and morphs into an indeterminately younger version of Charles Leale—we know it because his voice is deeper. He tells us that his father took him to see Christy's Minstrels so that he might witness the ugliness of racial hatred. Then he watches his father die of yellow fever. He studies medicine at Bellevue and becomes a fan of burlesque. He cares for a mortally wounded and alcoholic Stephen Foster. He attends a performance of Julius Caesar by the famous Booths—Edwin, Junius, and John Wilkes—on the same night that radical southern sympathizers unleash a bombing campaign on New York City.
It's mostly interesting stuff, too often interrupted with belabored renditions of period songs. But it's hard to tell why any of it's dramatically necessary. If Leale's father had hated blacks and lived to a ripe old age, or if Leale had never treated Stephen Foster, or if he'd never seen the Booths on stage, his role in history would be the same. After all, in Felder's telling, Leale's interest in attending Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre that fateful night was motivated simply by his devotion to physiognomy: he wanted to sit close enough to the president to study his face in detail.
Once Felder gets to the assassination and its aftermath, he hews closely to the details provided in Leale's 1909 address "Lincoln's Last Hours," but he invents one shamelessly sentimental episode: Leale sings "My Old Kentucky Home" into the ear of the comatose Lincoln. A stirring, unresolved, slightly bluesy score (imagine Aaron Copland swallowing a klezmer band and then writing for chamber orchestra) intrudes throughout. In Spielbergian fashion, the music swamps rather than heightens the emotions during what should otherwise be the play's payoff.
Leale's behavior in tending to the dying president, numerous overwhelmed government officials, and his own hysterical wife is unimpeachable—just like his behavior in every scene of this 75-minute show. And that's perhaps the biggest problem with An American Story. Without a discernible foible, weakness, or moment of ambivalence, Felder's Charles Leale is a bore.