Theater review: ‘Lincoln: An American Story’ at Pasadena Playhouse
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On April 14, 1865, Union Army medic Charles Leale went to Ford’s Theatre to see “Our American Cousin,” and became the de facto presiding physician in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination. He was 23 years old. Leale’s extraordinary story is the heart of “Lincoln: An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra,” Hershey Felder’s schmaltzy, stirring solo show with live music, now at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Basically, this is a one-man oratorio: Writer-performer-composer Felder, dressed in a Civil War uniform, is accompanied by a 45-piece orchestra playing his own score as well as such classics as “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” It is quite grand, if not perhaps a little grandiose, especially under the epic direction of Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”).
Felder, whose canny stage portraits of Beethoven, Chopin and Leonard Bernstein seem to be keeping some of L.A.’s larger nonprofit theaters afloat these days, is a natural ham. He is not so much an actor as a performer, and his florid gestures and pantomime feel very 19th century indeed.
If he oversells his tale, there’s certainly no need -- “Lincoln” has an irresistible hook. The step-by-step account of the shooting, the immediate aftermath at Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln’s deathbed are all the more absorbing for their minute details. Other sections, such as Walt Whitman’s vigils at the bedsides of wounded soldiers, or a brief description of minstrelsy, play like ideas that haven’t been fully integrated.
Felder and Zwick are a dangerous combination -- neither seems to have met a music cue he didn’t like -- and some judicious editing of the score would strongly improve the dramatic shape of the show. By building some silence around the big moments, Felder and Zwick might give the audience an opportunity to enter the piece more fully instead of have it simply wash over them. Despite its stylistic excesses, the substance of “Lincoln” resonates. In a time of national crisis, Charles Leale had the right stuff. His competent, concrete patriotism -- a far cry from today’s hollow political rhetoric –- moves and inspires.
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“Lincoln: An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Ends April 7. $54-$100. Contact: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. Running time: 75 minutes.