Riding a wave of increased interest in our 16th president, Hershey Felder has written, composed and arranged, and is enacting, “Lincoln — An American Story,” a sort of oratorio for actor and symphony orchestra featuring an extensive spoken narrative of the events of April 14-15, 1865. The evening is square but not humorless, hearteningly kitsch-free and unabashedly patriotic. It has no major statement to make, but as an emotional appeal to what’s best in the American character, it seems both quaint and refreshing.
Though the subtitle promises a panoramic biography, show steers clear of the same old Lincoln yarns (railsplitter and jackleg lawyer; lover of Ann Rutledge and debater of Stephen Douglas). Instead we are greeted by Felder in what’s lightly decorated by David Buess and Trevor Hay as Ford’s Theater. He’s the spirit of surgeon Charles Leale, who attended “Our American Cousin” largely to get a glimpse of the Great Emancipator and stayed to attend him as desperate doctor to failing patient.
Leale told his story late in life, treasuring its memories and in particular one relic of a handkerchief drenched in Lincoln’s blood. Felder is appropriately gentle as he presents the minute-by-minute medical tale of dread, told in counterpoint to the musical accompaniment of a 45-piece orchestra at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Truth be told, the youthful, ingenuous Leale is not as good a fit for actor Felder as the detailed Union Army officer uniform provided for him by Abigail Caywood. Felder’s stock in trade is imperiousness, his hauteur having served him well in impersonating the likes of Chopin, Bernstein and Gershwin in past entertainments. (It also suits the pre-1865 glimpses of John Wilkes Booth of which Lisle makes fateful report.)
But almost by nature, Felder is the smartest guy in the room and knows it, so when the journeyman medico looks up to realize, “I was the youngest man in the room, and I knew more than any of them,” his amazement is hard to credit. The actor also engages in flamboyant, theatrical gestures unsuited to an awkward amateur appreciator of the drama.
Still, in previous shows Felder has never pulled off anything so vulnerable and moving as his description of Lincoln’s last hour, and his elegiac reading of the Gettysburg Address – putting the proper emphasis on the nouns in “of the people, by the people, for the people” – is absolutely fine.
At first hearing, the accompaniment seems a tasteful, cinematically influenced blend of original themes and traditional melodies, periodically sweeping in Copland-style to accentuate key moments. On opening night, at least, sometimes the sweep was downright overwhelming as actor and orchestra battled for dominance. Surely Felder and conductor Alan Heatherington will iron out such kinks during the brief Pasadena run and beyond.
Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder provide evocative sepia-toned projections against curtains to bring the era alive, switching to full-color film of bluegrass country in Lincoln’s dying moments as Felder sings his favorite song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” It’s extremely powerful, reminding us of the simple yearnings in the hearts of the greatest of men.