“When Gershwin is on the stage, the audience wants him, not me,” says Hershey Felder, the multitalented Canadian pianist, playwright, composer and star of the one-man musical George Gershwin Alone. It’s a show that has played to half a million people in Florida, Los Angeles and the three Shuttle cities, and it’s returning in July to the American Repertory Theater (ART), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the show’s previous run broke box office records.
“Gershwin is an illusion.” says Felder. “The challenge is how to create it.” For the 90 minutes that Felder is onstage, he’s not merely impersonating Gershwin; he’s transformed.
The show is taxing for Felder. “You need to be in physical control for so long,” he says. There’s no break in the nearly two hour production, not even a drink of water. “Gershwin is a ghost,” Felder points out. “Wouldn’t that be something if the ghost picked up an Evian and said, ‘Gee, thirsty’?”
The handsome actor immediately points to his “big” nose as the sole similarity between his appearance and Gershwin’s. “I never met him,” says Felder, “but [in the show] I gave him a raison d’être. This is a man who wanted his audiences to love him.” Felder has mastered Gershwin’s piano technique, particulary evident in his solo rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
And this summer, Felder creates another illusion. Romantique, which opens at ART in August before heading to Washington and New York. In his new three-person show, the writer-actor conveys composer Frederic Chopin’s brilliance and cleverness. Romantique explores Chopin’s relationships with novelist George Sand (not yet cast) and painter Eugene Delacroix (played by Tony Award winner Anthony Crivello). “It’s so magical to go to Europe and dream about Paris in the 1800s,” says Felder. “I try to relive it and picture what Chopin’s world might have been. I get a sense of how contemporary those people were.
“Chopin has very strange character traits, what was in those days called melancholy. Today it would be called bipolar.”
Felder, 34, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, Kim Campbell, the only woman to have been prime minister of Canada. The couple met in Los Angeles when she was Canada’s consul general to the southwest United States. Now she’s a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and active as an international speaker; he’s a scholar in residence at Harvard. Felder admits he’s mellowed in the last dozen years since he married Campbell, 22 years his senior. Felder dismisses their age difference: “We have the same moral values.”
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George Gershwin Alone reopens July 5-26 at the American Repertory Theater; Romantique will be performed August 2-17. Contact ART in care of the Loeb Drama Center, Harvard University, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts; 617-547-8300; www.amrep.org.
At first, Felder considered himself “a political wife” and stayed in the kitchen, where he was able to exploit his passions for ethnic cooking and entertaining. But then came the success of his Gershwin work. “I’m getting called on more to be a very present other half,” Felder says. Still, at home in Cambridge, they are known for the eclectic guest lists of their dinner parties. “It’s about mixing people,” he adds.
Felder, raised as an Orthodox Jew in Montreal by parents who emigrated from Europe, began his career as an actor in the Yiddish Theater of Montreal and was trained as a concert pianist. “I don’t listen to music, I study music,” says Felder. “I have a rough time just enjoying a concert. For me, enjoyment is going to the dumbest movie.”
The rest of us, luckily, can go see Felder.