Hershey Felder Shines in Lukewarm ‘Abe Lincoln’s Piano’ (3.5 Stars)

Abe Lincoln’s Piano- Written by Hershey Felder; Directed by Trevor Hay; Music by Stephen Foster and Hershey Felder. At The Cutler Emerson Majestic Theater, 219 Tremont St., Boston through May 31.

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Hershey Felder’s one man ode to a King of American Theater in ‘George Gershwin Alone’. It is this sort of musical play that Felder is famous for, having also explored the lives of Frydrek Chopin and Leonard Bernstein and other musical greats.  The nature of famous musicians as subject matter, of course, lends itself a natural element of sappiness. Not so much with Abraham Lincoln.

In his latest outing, Felder explores the life and legacy of our 16th President, and
while Felder’s passion for the subject is evident, the piece tries to be too many things at once. It’s a history lesson, a statement on the importance of democracy and a love letter to a fallen American hero, and at times it feels like too much to cram into 90 minutes.

The murky first half of the show lacks momentum, with Felder switching from character to character without enough vocal and visual nuances for the audience to distinguish who is who – a mishmash of relatives and acquaintances of a museum curator. But things pick up when the narrative reins are given over to Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, the first doctor to attend to President Lincoln after that fatal gunshot wound and the man credited with keeping Lincoln alive for as long as possible. It is through his eyes that the story really begins to take shape.

For years, Dr. Leale was too traumatized to speak about the event and chose to “cast it all aside”. He did make a speech in 1909 to commemorate what would have been Lincoln’s 100th birthday, knowing that history demanded it, and in 2012 his original report, written right after the tragic events, was released from the national archives (both pretty fascinating reads, the writings add a new layer of immediacy to those of us who thought we knew it all after a Ford’s Theater tour). Leale takes us through his own early years, where his beloved father (also a doctor) shaped his love of theater, respect for civil liberties, and instilled integrity to treat all who were in need, resulting in his choice to follow in his footsteps and become a surgeon. Fate and curiosity are interwoven throughout the play, with John Wilkes Booth even making an appearance or two even before that fateful night he murdered Lincoln.

What follows are the strongest parts of the piece, chief among them vignettes from the horrors of the front lines of the Civil War in New York City where Leale was training at Bellevue Hospital. Moved by the brutality he saw on the home front, Leale enlisted as an army surgeon and was soon stationed in Washington DC.

The penultimate scene at Ford’s Theater, where Leale was in attendance for that infamous performance of “My American Cousin” is chilling. Just  23 at the time, he was seated only forty feet from the President, and his firsthand account of both his actions and those around him (Mrs. Lincoln never leaving his side, John Wilkes Booth fleeing from the scene, dagger in hand) feel real.

We know how the play ends, but with Hershey at the piano singing with lines like “Please stop crying Mrs. Lincoln,” it really veers into the overly dramatic at times, and I found it hard to lose myself in the moment. The show is at its best when period music is used to move the story, with Stephen Foster’s ‘Oh Susanna’,  ‘Beautiful Dreamer,’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ as high points. Felder is always at his best on the piano, and his virtuosity alone is worth the ticket price. It’s also worth noting that The Cutler Majestic itself is worth attending a show if just for the ambiance of the beautifully restored Beaux-Arts architecture.

The set and use of photographs against long velvet curtains adds ominous casts over the room and along with the music are the finest parts of the play. With a sharper focus and someone as immensely talented as Felder behind the Helm, ‘Abe Lincoln’s Piano’ has the potential to be great, but too often falters into overly-sentimental territory. With a true story as compelling as this, it’s best to keep the maudlin to a minimum and let the facts breathe. For more info, go to: https://cutlermajestic.org/Online/default.asp