Theater Reviews

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Geffen Playhouse, Westwood
Through Aug. 26


Anyone who doesn't respond to the piano music of Fryderyk Chopin either lacks an ear or a heart. Chopin composed some of the most beautiful music of all time, and in Hershey Felder's unique one-man-show, "Monsieur Chopin," the music is played about as well as it can be played.

This in itself distinguishes the current show -- as well as Felder's recently closed "George Gershwin Alone" -- from the usual one-person formula piece. Felder's talent and presence are such that he can present an audience with the essential artistry of his subject rather than merely imitating personal tics or regaling us with anecdotes and one-liners that offer little more than a fan's inflated perspective.

The evening is framed as a piano lesson taking place in Chopin's salon in 1848, a year before he died at age 39. As Chopin, Felder is the piano teacher you always dreamed of having, especially if you happen to be of the female persuasion. Passionate and dreamy, reserved and impulsive, angelic and gloomy to the point of melancholia -- bipolar probably would be the modern diagnosis -- Chopin was a tangle of human contradictions held together by his complete devotion to the demands of art. Of course, this makes him all but irresistible.

Felder's approach, as it was in the Gershwin piece, is to put the art before the man. The spine of the show is the music -- dreamy nocturnes, exquisite waltzes, stirring mazurkas, delicate preludes, all capped by the thrilling "Heroic Polonaise" in A-flat major. We are reminded that Chopin was by temperament and choice largely a salon pianist whose compositions and piano technique reflect this more intimate milieu. At times, Felder's light-fingered swiftness is so delicately ethereal that he appears to be playing above the keys, in a space that only he inhabits. At other times, he fills the theater powerfully in a manner that Liszt himself might have envied.

These musical passages often are linked to key events in Chopin's personal life, giving us an acute sense of how the artist's life and work influenced each other. Chopin also liked to amuse himself by incorporating the foibles of the people he met into his music, and Felder also calls this to our attention.

The show is less successful when it comes to Chopin the man. We're offered glimpses of the composer's happy childhood until it was darkened by the sudden death of his sister. We're told about his lifelong exile from his beloved Poland, his artistic conquest of Paris and his peculiar rivalry with Liszt, a composer he loved to hate, though Liszt often was quite generous to Chopin.

Much of the biographical material inevitably focuses on Chopin's 10-year relationship with novelist George Sand, the love of his life as well as his undoing in certain ways. The brilliant cross-dressing, cigar-smoking, sexually liberated Sand and her two children, Solange and Maurice, figure prominently in Chopin's troubled last decade of life, but Felder hasn't shaped the rich material into its best form yet. Much of it is sketchy, and Chopin relates it without offering us the insight that one would expect from a man this intelligent and perceptive.

To a certain extent, Felder tries to compensate for this problem by entertaining a question-and-answer period after the final musical piece. But this segment points up that something important is still missing from the show. Musically, however, the evening is glorious. Joel Zwick once again directs.

MONSIEUR CHOPIN
Geffen Playhouse, the Eighty-Eight Entertainment,
Samantha F. Voxakis and Lee Kaufman
Credits:
Music: Fryderyk Chopin
Book: Hershey Felder
Director: Joel Zwick
Scenic designer: Yael Pardess
Lighting designer: Richard Norwood
Original sound designer: Benjamin Furiga
Projection designer: John Boesche
Production consultant: Jeffrey Kallberg
Performer: Hershey Felder
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