Berkeley Rep theatergoers and critics, myself included, have already sung the praises of Hershey Felder, the gifted concert pianist, composer and actor, who wrote and performed the first-rate one-man show “George Gershwin Alone” (2013), and the recent exciting “Maestro“ about Leonard Bernstein. He has now reappeared, barely one month later, with a similarly structured biographical and musical performance, “Monsieur Chopin,” about the creative genius, Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin. So, is this too much of a good thing?
Felder began his latest one-act piece by introducing himself as Fryderyk Chopin, the audience’s teacher. Felder’s portrayal of Chopin, complete with coat, wig and Polish accent, was first-class. The “lesson” was a recitation of Chopin’s biography, interspersed with impressive, romantic performances of more than a dozen of Chopin’s famous and difficult music for the piano.
Added were insights into Chopin’s thought processes. For example, Felder described some themes of the renowned “Valse in E-Flat Major” as women in conversation at a salon represented by the high notes, while competing lower notes symbolized hearty male laughter. Hearing the music with this explanation added greatly to the enjoyment of the piece.
Chopin’s short biography (he died at age 39) was heartfully conveyed by Felder, especially the death of Chopin’s youngest sister, and of his beloved Poland being subsumed by Tsarist Russia. The device of Felder, as Chopin, telling his own story, however, eliminated a more nuanced exploration of Chopin’s life and personality. What I learned about Chopin from the production I had mostly read on Wikipedia just before the production began. In the Q & A afterward (“Ask me anything …”) Felder allowed himself to drop out of character briefly, and we learned that George Sands had padded a room for Chopin to work in. Hinted was the possibility of Chopin having bipolar disorder … not in Wikipedia.
“Monsieur Chopin” is directed by the multitalented Joel Zwick, who must have an easy job of it now, since the direction of “George Gershwin Alone” and “Maestro” were so similar. While the sets have subtle differences, they too appear almost identical. I was glad to see the large gold-framed mirror on the set, since I was sitting in a section where I couldn’t see Felder’s hands at work. Sadly for me, the mirror was not focused on the maestro’s hands. The film that was periodically projected against the heavily folded curtain was difficult to discern.
My earlier question, “too much of a good thing?” is one on which audiences may disagree. Those who have not seen the Gershwin and Bernstein productions, will find “Monsieur Chopin” entrancing. Those who are familiar with Felder’s shtick may find that the presentations are getting to be a bit like a fabulous Music 101 professor’s lectures, which become formulaic to the point where their brilliance fades into predictability.
And Felder does have brilliance, both in musical and acting ability. His renditions of Chopin’s piano pieces were emotional, romantic and technically dazzling.
Even before it opened, Berkeley Rep extended the run of Monsieur Chopin through Aug. 10, but check for information and tickets.
Hershey Felder: A master entertainer’s food journeys (06.24.14)
Felder reaches news depths in “Maestro” at Berkeley Rep (06.10.14)
George Gershwin alone: Love song to the love song man (06.12.13)
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