CHOPIN IN PARIS at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Perhaps my favorite part of maintaining my own handydandy website rather than reviewing for the LA Times or during my many years writing for BackStage and Entertainment Today is that I don’t have to give a hang about conforming to AP Style or being concerned about the rules of journalistic integrity.
Hence, I can cover the lovechild of a dear friend without caring if anyone thinks it’s a conflict of interests. That said, I’m sure there are friends of mine who can attest to the fact that over the years I have bashed their hard work in print despite my love for them and people who are definitely anything but my friends I have praised profusely when it came to their performances.
Such is the case with Hershey Felder in the Los Angeles premiere of Chopin in Paris, just opened at the Wallis, his solo masterpiece and an electrifying addition to his prolific and overachieving “Composer Sonata” touring performances.
Hershey and I have been friends for a few hundred years, you see, ever since he hung out around the corner in the lobby of the Geffen one night to meet me when I arrived, wanting to give me thanks for the many glowing reviews I had given him over the years and proclaiming I was one of those who “got him.”
Since then, we’ve met for a hug and a visit whenever he has been in LA from his idyllic home base in Florence, Italy, and in the last few years we have become… what? Remember penpals? I guess I could say he and I have become the modern equivalent to that: text-pals, not to mention a few years ago he commissioned me to create eight portraits of him in his various brilliant and uncanny onstage incarnations as Gershwin, Beethoven, Lizst, and all the others.
And as satisfying as it is to grouse about and try to solve the world’s multitude of problems over the 6,213 miles on the ‘net, seeing him in person to share a long overdue hug at the Wallis opening last night was a true treat, something akin to greeting a long-lost cousin at a mini-family reunion—albeit with less baggage.
My partner Hugh and I were fortunate to see the west coast debut of Chopin in Paris in the fall of 2019 before the world pulled up the welcome mat (then titled Monsieur Chopin) at the sadly now defunct San Diego Rep and I was knocked out by it even then. Aside from Hershey’s ability to field questions from the audience and answer them with such a plethora of knowledge about the composer’s life, including dates and names and pronunciations in French, Hungarian, and Chopin’s native Polish, he never ceases to amaze how he can then lead the session back to his original script—making one wonder how the lighting and sound operators can keep up with the often freestyle nature of the presentation itself.
Expertly directed by Joel Zwick, Chopin in Paris explores the romantic story and timeless music of one of the world’s greatest pianist-composers, set in his Paris salon at 9 Square d’Orleans on the afternoon of March 4, 1848, just days after the beginning of his home country’s revolution against the Russians (of course), their monumentally oppressive occupiers. With the conceit that we are the recipients of one of his documented music lessons, as it unfolds Chopin reveals secrets about the art of the piano and composition, as well as secrets about himself.
As always in Hershey's multi-award-winning performances which have toured all over the world, the acclaimed playwright/pianist/actor delves deep into the music and psyche of Chopin himself, considered by his contemporaries, and now by history, as the true “Poet of the Piano.” Featuring and honoring some of the musical genius’ most beautiful and enduring music, it’s quite soul-lifting as another contemporary musical genius entertains and mesmerizes us with his insight and incomparable theatrical style.
What struck me most this time, however, beside how the composer’s memories of the brutal and barbaric Russian invasion of Poland in the 1830s so eerily mirrored what the country is currently doing in the Ukraine, was the many references to the nature of artistic inspiration as Chopin continuously reminds us of shaping any work of art that “If it is to mean anything at all, it must be personal. It must come from your soul. And you must say something.”
This instantly brought me back to my early years as Talent Coordinator of the legendary Troubadour in the late 60s and early 70s, when each week I received somewhere between 100 and 150 tapes of artists looking to be booked at our career-making venue, not to mention attending sets at smaller clubs and watching over the Troub’s weekly amateur Monday night “Hoot Night”—from which came wannabes Jackson Browne, Cheech and Chong, Steve Martin, Glenn Frye, Tom Waits, and many others. Of all the artists I had to contemplate, many, many were accomplished musicians but what I learned to look for was that little spark of something different, something I had not heard before from all the others, something completely unique to them.
Such is the work of Hershey Felder himself, who creates his magical, gossamer live art while teaching us so much about the world in which his subjects existed and how their life experiences translated into notes on the piano. And because it’s my friggin’ website and I can without an editor stopping me, I am here reprinting the original review of our first look at Chopin in Paris at San Diego Rep, written by my partner as a guest to my website back in the days when I still has a slight resistance to writing glowing notices about people I dearly love:
Chopin in Paris (then Monsieur Chopin) reviewed September, 2019 by H.A. Eaglehart
Time is the ultimate test of true art, something once again proven by the words written and performed by Hershey Felder in Monsieur Chopin, his solo rendition paying homage to Frederic Chopin.
San Diego Repertory Theatre has graced SoCal once again with one of Hershey’s eight plays bringing great musical composers to life for audiences around the world. Over the course of my six-year immersion into theatre in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, it has been my great privilege to see Hershey breathe life into the great works of Russian composer Tchaikovsky and French composer Debussy at the Wallis, as well as Beethoven at the Geffen.
George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, and Liszt are also composers whom I’ve yet to see arise from the crypt through the keys of Hershey’s mesmerizing talent as an actor, intellectual, and world-class pianist fiercely creating magic on the Steinway piano which travels with him around the nation.
Hershey is one of the greatest intellectuals of our time, successfully reintroducing audiences from all walks of life to the titans who shaped the conscious state of modernity. On his last weekend bringing Monsieur Chopin to San Diego for an extended run, he transformed his rapt audience into students seeking piano classes from the proud Polish composer as he equally conjures the brilliance and bipolarity of the man, who lived in times when his bipolar condition was labeled as “melancholia.”
Recently Hershey was commissioned by my boyfriend to paint all eight composers which he has portrayed over the last 25 years and so I have had the pleasure of seeing his portraits of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, Berlin, Bernstein, and Liszt standing side by side, as real as seeing them alive within Hershey, who has indeed shattered the test of time.
He also shatters the fourth wall as Chopin, walking us through his life and the development of his celebrated collected works as he often turns to the audience subbing as students in his Paris salon, demanding we ask questions which are the only a path to artistic development. “You may as well ask questions since you put 20 francs into the box,” Chopin tells us, pointing to a box gracing a table on the stunning set, designed by Hershey, where students in his salon placed their tuition in return for the right to learn from the great composer.
Audience members are challenged to pick at Chopin’s brilliant mind brought to life through Hershey’s incredible scope and uncanny faculty as an artist and intellectual. Experiencing firsthand Travis’ journey bringing these composers embodied within Hershey to life on canvas, I became aware of his acute attention to set lighting, which is an intricate essential in Hershey’s genius as a storyteller. Thanks to the lighting design talents of Erik Barry, Chopin’s internal soul evokes empathy and wonder in our own hearts as we emphasize with the turbulent processes of life we all share.
Throughout the course of the evening we are taught by Chopin that a great artist viscerally paints the aura of being alive through tools like a Steinway, lighting design, and brilliant background projections. My love for Hershey’s work is accelerated by his innate gift for breathing life into immortal stories having withstood the test of time. He bridges the gap between the audience and the greatest musical compositions ever written.
I came to tears last year sitting in the audience at the Wallis witnessing Tchaikovsky take the stage, allowing us to step into the pain of his world as a gay genius in a time even darker than ours of Trump. The most important message in Hershey’s timelessness is to remind us we are not alone and the amazing fact about it all is, like Chopin, the great Hershey Felder only needs a piano to bring us into the story he has to tell.
We watch Chopin fall into the depths of depression as Russia rapes Poland and forces him to flee to Paris where he is a man without a country. I may be slightly paraphrasing but Chopin tells us, his students, “All I had left to fight with was a piano.” Hearing Chopin and Tchaikovsky relate their life stories in spoken word instead of printed words in a book is a transforming experience.
After the 2018 performance of Our Great Tchaikovsky, Hershey announced he would be traveling with it from Beverly Hills to Moscow, the prospect of taking the story of a genius homosexual composer to the capitol of the homophobic dictatorship of Putin, where gay people are brutally murdered and imprisoned, he admitted scared him.
Travis and I had a late dinner with Hershey and his associate director Trevor Hay after the performance. Rarely does anyone get the privilege of being invited to dinner with a true idol and I confess to being starstruck over the avocado dip and a lovely gin and tonic. As we strolled with Hershey through the Gaslamp District of Downtown San Diego back to our rooms at the Grand Horton Hotel, on an empty sidewalk I got the opportunity to ask how well his performance as Tchaikovsky was received in Moscow.
“I never went,” Hershey replied bleakly. “That’s how real the danger is in Russia.” In a world being overran by dictators, we all need to listen more to our artists, because only art will withstand the inequities and ruthlessness of time.
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