Felder rocks Liszt, Lincoln

Even for the energetic and versatile Hershey Felder — pianist, actor, playwright, composer and producer — the time warp of his next two world premieres may be considered a bit of a stretch.

Coming up first is “Rockstar,” opening this month at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. Then, at the beginning of next year, Felder switches personas and countries in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

The title character of “Rockstar” is the 19th century Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. In his time, “He changed the way music is listened to, just as Elvis Presley did in his time,” Felder observed in an interview.

“Liszt turned the piano, then used only for accompaniment, into a solo instrument, becoming the greatest virtuoso of his era and perhaps of all time,” Felder noted. “In addition, he was a hot-looking guy.”

In 2011, on the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth, The New York Times ran an article under the headline, “Still Wondering if Liszt Was Any Good.”

Clutching the newspaper in “Rockstar,” Liszt’s ghost visits the room where he died in Bayreuth, now a German museum; he is still handsome, but showing the wear and tear of the past two centuries.

Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, married Richard Wagner, and the anti-Semitism of Hitler’s favorite composer is occasionally ascribed also to his father-in-law.

 “The Nazis claimed Liszt as an ‘Aryan composer’ and used the finale of his ‘Les Preludes’ as the theme music for their weekly newsreels, but he was never an anti-Semite,” Felder said.

Indeed, one scene in “Rockstar” portrays Liszt’s ghost as devastated when he learns of the descent of German anti-Semitism into the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews.

Few modern artists have been more intensively involved in Jewish history and tradition than Felder. The son of a father who survived the Holocaust and settled in Canada, Hershey made his professional stage debut at 14 on the stage of the Yiddish Theatre in Montreal.

Even earlier, at 6, he entertained residents of the Jewish old age home by playing the piano, although to mixed reviews.

“One elderly lady came up to my parents afterward, telling them, ‘You either have to give the boy some piano lessons or kill him,’ ” Felder recounted.

Hershey survived and went on to graduate from the Hebrew Academy in Toronto, a city where his uncle, Rabbi Gedalia Felder, was a respected scholar and author.

Felder has drawn on his heritage directly in his compositions (“Aliyah Concerto on Israeli Themes”), recordings (“Love Songs of the Yiddish Theatre”), concert-plays (“George Gershwin Alone,” “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein”) and as director (“The Pianist of Willesden Lane”).

While Felder will age 200 years in “Rockstar,” in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” his challenge will be to represent 20 different characters with hardly any costume changes.

The new production, following his earlier “Lincoln: An American Story,” continues Felder’s fascination with the life and death of the 16th president.

The idea for the upcoming show was triggered by Felder’s visit to the Chicago History Museum and to its attic, where the Lincoln family’s White House piano was stored.

Fascinated by the tales surrounding both the instrument and the events of the night Lincoln was assassinated, Felder interviewed the descendants of some of the people present at Ford’s Theatre on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865.

“I talked to the great-grandchildren and other relatives of the doctor who first treated the wounded Lincoln, of an actress who was on stage that evening, and of the woman who cradled the president’s bloody head, and so forth,” Felder said.

Most of the show’s musical numbers will be by Stephen Foster, from “My Old Kentucky Home” to “Oh! Susanna,” as well as other vaudeville and minstrel tunes of the era.

As the show progresses, Felder said, “I’ll play many roles, among them Mary Todd Lincoln, a young soldier, an actress and the first blackface minstrel, whose stage name, Jim Crow, became part of this country’s racial history.”

Trevor Hay, a longtime Felder collaborator, will direct both “Rockstar” and “Abe Lincoln’s Piano.”

“Rockstar” will be performed Sept. 17-29 at the Laguna Playhouse. “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” will be on stage at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theatre, Jan. 3-13, 2014.

For tickets or more information on either play, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, April 29

Sure, they’re renown writers, but it seems what everyone really wants to be is a rockstar. Columnist Dave Barry, novelists Stephen King, Mitch Albom and Amy Tan and cartoonist Matt Groening, among other artists known for their literary talents, went so far as to form a band several years ago. The Rock Bottom Remainders performs a few times a year in benefit concerts, and tonight they’re at Royce Hall. The show is called “Besides the Music: Conversation, Debate and yes, Music,” and raises money for 826LA.

8 p.m. $25-$50 (general), $200 (VIP reception). Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood. R.S.V.P., (310) 825-2101.

Sunday, April 30

The City of West Hollywood’s cultural programming today includes a free concert of Jewish songs performed in Hebrew, English and Russian. Embracing the Russian Jewish heritage of many WeHo residents, the city celebrates with traditional songs performed by local artists.

5-7 p.m. Free. Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-6826.

Monday, May 1

For those who need a little Bar-Chu on-the-go, religious school music teacher Idan Irelander, of Temple Emanuel in Andover, Mass., and the temple’s Youth Chorus have recently come together to record “Shacharit Inplugged.” The CD features morning prayers like Ashrei and the Shema recorded with a live and spirited sound.

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Tuesday, May 2

On view at two local galleries are photographs offering extreme perspectives on our world by Jill Greenberg and Lisa Eisner. Head to Paul Kopeikin Gallery for Greenberg’s “End Times” to view profoundly upsetting images of babies crying. “The children I photographed were not harmed in any way,” Greenberg said in a press release. Toddlers are wont to cry, Greenberg noted, saying “It reminded me of helplessness and anger I feel about our current political and social situation.” After Greenberg, head to M+B Gallery for more uplifting work by Eisner. “A Butterfly Fluttered By: Photographs of the West” offers beautiful saturated color photographs celebrating the spirit of western states from Wyoming to California.

Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-0765. Through July 8.
M+B, 612 Almont Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 550-0050. Through May 27.

Wednesday, May 3

Better than a book signing is a book signing with booze. The vino will flow at tonight’s event promoting former Journal singles columnist J.D. (Jeff) Smith’s new book on wine collecting, “The Best Cellar.” Get some tips, and get a designated driver.

Free with book purchase. Wally’s Wine and Spirits, 2107 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. Space is limited. R.S.V.P., (310) 475-0606, ext. 122.

Thursday, May 4

It pays to get canned tonight. Celebrating the nonworking man this evening is performer and writer Annabel Gurwitch, with her latest installment of “Fired!” monologues. This new one — aptly titled “Fired Again!” — features a revolving cast of actors and writers, and proof of unemployment gets you in for $15.

May 3-7. $15-$45. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 827-0889.

Friday, May 5

Just arrived on the West Coast is the new musical “I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin.” The song-and-dance feel-good production celebrates Berlin music, weaving 64 of his songs through the story of an old piano’s life.

Through May 7. $25-$50. Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. (562) 856-1999.