‘Lincoln’s Piano’ falls short of Felder’s best

Hershey Felder in a scene from "Abe Lincoln's Piano." Photo: Eighty Eight LLC

Hershey Felder in a scene from “Abe Lincoln’s Piano.” Photo: Eighty Eight LLC

BOSTON — Hershey Felder is an actor and musician who’s rarely out of work, probably because he’s constantly inventing new ways to meld his acting and musical talents.
In the last 15 years he has written and performed “George Gershwin Alone,” “Monsieur Chopin,” “Beethoven, As I Knew Him,” and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein” on Broadway, the West End of London, regionally and internationally.
Now he’s returned to Boston under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, with the production of his “Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” now at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Felder is a fine actor and master storyrteller, but it feels as if he’s a bit out of his element here in a piece that centers around the events of April 14 and 15, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln made the fateful decision to attend a performance of “My American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre.
The piece was borne out of a visit Felder made to the Chicago History Museum, where he found the actual piano that was once in Lincoln’s White House, and decided to craft this piece around it..
He begins as a guide welcoming a visitor to the museum’s attic and eventually springboards to a host of characters. The guide tells of a story about his ancestor who was present when a medium — summoned by Mary Todd Lincoln to help her connect with the spirit of her recently deceased son — played the piano as it began to levitate, as if possessed.
The work eventually settles on the events around the Lincoln assassination as told from the point of view of a 23-year-old Union Army surgeon named Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, who aided the fallen Lincoln that fateful April night in Ford’s Theatre.
The structure of the piece gives Felder access to American Civil War songbook, as well as the works of Stephen Foster and patriotic songs.
There are other historical artifacts in that attic that will play a part in the piece: a mannequin dressed in a Union Army coat, a chair cloaked in a cotton shroud, a box that contains a blood-stained sheet, taken from the bed of the home across the street from the theater where Lincoln, shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth, lay dying.
Felder will cleverly intersect Leale’s story with other iconic figures of the time, including the doomed, destitute composer Foster, the Booth family, the First Family of American acting at the time, and even a young Union Army male nurse named Walt Whitman.
Felder plays so grandly and expressively that he can indeed make one Steinway piano feel as if it is a musical ensemble, and some of the musical numbers are magical, but they often leave us longing for the next one.
Felder had set the bar so high on his previous performances in Boston and this piece never quite reaches the heights of the Gershwin or Bernstein works. Still, Felder is a master storyteller and musician and “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” is a worthy evening of entertainment.
“Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” a new musical play by Hershey Felder. Book by Felder, music by Felder, Stephen Foster and others. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre through May 31. http://www.artsemerson.org

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