Heaven can wait

Monsieur Chopin at ART, Candy and Dorothy at Wellfleet
June 27, 2006 5:54:15 PM

MONSIEUR CHOPIN:  The pianist is more romantic than the actor.
If Monsieur Chopin (presented by American Repertory Theatre through July 30) were to find itself in Tony contention, the score would do better than the book. Hershey Felder’s solo “romanza for actor and piano” takes the form of a piano lesson given in 1848 by the composer Fryderyk Chopin. If each member of the packed Loeb Drama Center audience, all serving as students, were to drop the required 20 francs into an urn in the composer’s drapery-swathed salon at 9 Square d’Orléans, Paris, Chopin would do pretty well. And if we had learned less about playing piano than about the musical personality of the teacher, sickly and no longer shacked up with George Sand, we would at least have heard some beautiful music. Felder’s reminiscences, as a sweeping-blond-tressed Chopin, can be melodramatic or stilted, but he aptly demonstrates the way in which the composer’s fluctuating moods flow into his fingers to create some of the most romantic music ever written. And he plays Chopin — everything from the B-flat-minor Sonata’s March Funèbre to the Polonaise in A-flat — with a combination of passionate immersion and delicacy that, to my less than expert ear, outstrips his more heavy-handed rendering of Rhapsody in Blue in the popular George Gershwin Alone, his show about the American composer who, like Chopin, died young.

Certainly Monsieur Chopin stands head and shoulders above Felder’s first shot at Chopin, a 2003 orgy of cliché called Romantique that included Sand and the painter Eugène Delacroix as characters. (The performer/pianist intends a composer triptych in sonata form, with a highly structured but as yet unveiled Beethoven piece as the first movement, Gershwin as the extroverted third, and Monsieur Chopin as the middle, described in Felder’s précis as “a lush and beautiful expression of soul.”) Here Felder, as Chopin, bustles onto Yael Pardess’s opulent salon set nestled beneath a skewed proscenium and dominated by a nine-foot Fazioli grand piano. He is beautifully dressed (the costume is by Polish-born Boguslaw Sankowski) and polite, apologizing for his lateness, only to relate later the distressing event that delayed him — and nudged him into a state of sad reflection. He dwells on details of his adored younger sister’s funeral, his exile from his beloved homeland, love lost on the grounds of status and money (Chopin had to teach piano for a living), and an eight-year-attachment to Sand that ended in her rejecting him, probably because his “melancholia” made their liaison too difficult.

All of this is meticulously researched, some of it drawn word for word from letters to and from Chopin. (Music scholar Jeffrey Kallberg served as a production consultant.) But none of it, with the exception of some of the music, is subtle. Rhythm, Chopin opines, is “the heartbeat.” Playing piano requires taking “this beast” and making it “capable of laughter and tears.” Recalling his sister’s death, Chopin speaks of “gravestones, hovering and hungry.” Charting his lifelong bi-polarism, he describes depression as “a black hole in which I sink and sink until I drown.” The lugubriousness of all this is underlined by John Boesche’s projection design, in which greenery swirls along with faces from the past, including an aproned ex-fiancée looking like an escapee from a hot-chocolate ad and Sand with most of a bouquet affixed to her head.

After revealing an accidental, heartbreaking last encounter with Sand, Felder’s Chopin launches into a triumphant, rhythmically electric rendition of the A-flat Polonaise that proves a false ending. Afterward, Felder, still in costume but out of character, comments on Chopin — on how he revealed more to his students than to his public and on how he came into his own in the salon, improvising brilliantly. This material is more astute than much of what preceded it, but couldn’t Felder show it, as Chopin, rather than tell it? And the sing-along at the end — to “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” ripped off by Harry James from Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu — should have remained in Gershwin’s yard. There is “romanza” enough in Monsieur Chopin, but more of it comes from the piano than from the actor.

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