Article by Philly Joe Swendoza
September 15, 2019
Is there anybody who has not heard of the history teacher, who one day shows up in class dressed as George Washington or Betsy Ross to teach bored students all about the American Revolution? Or maybe it was the young English prof who shuffles in one day as an old grey man in a black slouch hat proclaiming, “I hear America singing,” a la Walt Whitman. When I was a young history teacher, I did a Dylanesque turn on “American history through American folk music,” complete with guitar, harmonica, and even a kazoo. One of the greatest teaching gimmicks ever and one no student could ever forget.
Actor and classical pianist Hershey Felder has taken that little conceit and elevated it to art, through a dazzling array of one man portrayals ranging from Beethoven to Liszt to Gershwin. Through over 5,000 solo stage performances, Felder has treated global audiences to an ongoing revival of “Dead Men’s Greatest Hits,” combining richly informed banter with the audience and virtuoso musical performance into singular stage magic. To my knowledge, he has yet to impersonate a great woman, but who can guess what this gifted artist cannot do? Felder knows his way around wigs, words & wonderment. The music needs no embellishment, but it sure goes down sweeter and smarter with him at the piano. And so it is with his Monsieur Chopin, now in limited run at the San Diego Rep. Felder’s “Romanza”with Polish piano poet Fryderyk Chopin embodies the “Blue Pole” as a man who speaks softly but carries a big set of keys, infused with early 19th Century European Romantic Nationalism, and wielding a thunderous left and penetrating right at the ivories.
The setting is Chopin’s Paris salon in 1848, year of political revolution, just months before his death at 39 from tuberculosis the following year. Felder, in frock coat and billowing scarf, delights with stories of Chopin’s mother, sister, father, romances, rivalries, challenges, setbacks and triumphs, all set to piano accompaniments that I will not spoil by naming the pieces. You know them when you hear them and now you will know them as Chopin wrote them. Chopin suffered his own personal revolution of 1848, when his 8-year relationship with the French gender-bending novelist George Sand fell apart. Retreating to his studio and his students, the master was clearly a broken man, a state beautifully captured in the set itself, a dark barely candle lit room, more gloomy inner sanctum than fount of greatness. The greatness was done and so was the man, undone by a woman who dressed like a man.
Monsieur Chopin is a charming charade despite its dark Gothic overtones. Felder leavens Chopin’s private pain with his own personal levity, but at heart he knows it is a tragic story of genius cut down in its prime by love, political turbulence, disease or what? You pick the poison and you will hear it forevermore in Chopin’s music, thanks to the genius of Hershey Felder.
Your Vagabond Bon Vivant,
Philly Joe Swendoza