Concert pianist/actor Howard Hersh Felder has fashioned an extravagantly produced theater/concert piece that weaves together the fabric of his own life with that of a few significant individuals who have profoundly influenced him. Along the way he performs such well-known recital war-horses as Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude No. 1 in C sharp Minor,” Chopin’s “Polonaise in A major,” Strauss’ “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Though carefully staged by Kay Cole, there is an awkwardness to this “musical journey” that is not altogether mitigated by the profoundness of the storytelling or Felder’s considerable talents as a pianist.
The boyish-looking Felder, 29, exudes a sense of reverence and awe as he unfolds this personal history that includes his funny and irreverent recollection of his own bar mitzvah, the premature death of his mother to cancer, his slow-developing commitment to becoming a concert pianist and his cathartic experience of visiting Auschwitz in 1995 during the 50th anniversary ceremonies of the liberation of the camp. Along the way, Felder takes on the personas of his impish, fun-loving Uncle Yankel and two Auschwitz survivors, Berlin-born Helmutt Spryczer and Czechoslovakian refugee Dasha Lewin.
Felder is an accomplished linguist and he is skilled at presenting the accents of his characters. Unfortunately, he never believably inhabits his characters — there is always a sense of a child playing at being a grown-up. Yael Pardess’ mammoth set and Jerry Verschoor’s costume pieces only emphasize the gulf between the actor and the characters he is trying to portray. Felder’s otherwise deeply moving narratives would be better served if the young actor stayed within himself, offering the essence of his characters within the context of the storylines.
Still, it is fascinating to hear the tale of wry and clever Spryczer, who at age 12 managed to keep himself alive at Auschwitz by impressing the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele with his high-born German speech and his willingness to become Mengele’s errand boy. Then there is the matronly Lewin, who describes watching her own mother line up to be exterminated as she tenderly fondles her only link to her family’s life before the war, her mother’s dishes.
Felder is a highly sensitive musician who invests a vast range of dynamics and tempo variations into his playing. His performances on the Rachmaninoff and Chopin pieces were technically competent if not spectacular. But his flamboyant, virtuoso arrangement and performance of the “Blue Danube” is an emotional tour de force, possibly fueled by Spryczer’s declaration that this otherwise lilting waltz was what incoming internees heard blaring from the loudspeakers as they arrived at Auschwitz. The highlight of the evening is his 10-minute, super-charged, enveloping rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue,” a piece in which Spryczer declares, “You can hear the cries of the dying.”