I first “met “Dr. Charles Leale, the physician who tried to save Abraham Lincoln when I visited the Ford's Theatre in Wahington, D.C.recently. In that theatre while sitting in the seats, looking at the balcony where Lincoln, his wife and friends were seated, I listened to the Park Ranger tell the story of the shot that killed Lincoln, and as I heard about this young doctor, I wondered what his story was. I was interested to learn that this was a topic of interest to Hershey Felder, too and that “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra”, now playing in a limited engagement at The Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted, focused on the doctor's telling of that terrible day and what came later. What I did not know before seeing this production was that Dr. Charles Leale lived to be 90 and had a remarkable life.
Set in New York City in 1932, 90-year old Dr. Charles Leale tells his true story as he travels back in time and recounts the events that changed his life forever 67 years prior. Hershey Felder stars as “Dr. Leale,” the 23-year-old unknown Union Army medic who was the first individual to reach the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre on the night President Lincoln was shot. Per the request of Mrs. Lincoln, Dr. Leale cared for the President throughout his final hours. “An American Story”is based on Dr. Leale’s account, “Lincoln’s Last Hours”, as well as his original report from 1865, which created an international sensation when it was discovered amongst Lincoln’s papers in Washington, D.C. in June 2012.
“An American Story” features an original book and score by Felder and was performed with a live orchestra. Drawing upon the songs of great American composer Stephen Foster (Beautiful Dreamer, My Old Kentucky Home, and Oh Susanna), as well as President Lincoln’s own words, “An American Story” is based on true events as seen through the eyes of a simple young man who suddenly found himself at the center of world history.
Great care was taken to create the atmosphere of the period in which the performance took place. Walking into the Royal George Theatre, “wanted” posters lined some of the walls in the lobby. The unusual playbill offered to the audience was modeled after one you would have received attending the Fords Theatre the night of the assassination. And the interior of the theatre was very reminiscent of the Ford’s Theatre. The use of photos projected onto the curtains was wonderfully done, and provided a feeling of both photographs of the time and also an unreality depicting an earlier time. All of this set the tone for the story as it was told. The Hershey Felder in this performance was a different one that I have seen before. He did not play the piano, and he was a consummate storyteller. The orchestra, which added charm and warmth sometimes overshadowed his songing.
I was riveted while history played out before me. The series of stories and events were amazing and also a contrast of good and evil with many ironic twists and turns. We learn that the young doctor loved the theater and why. In parallel and also in contrast were the three Booth brothers (out of 10 children) who performed on stage, John Wilkes being the youngest. The fateful night when Dr. Leale was unable to keep his promise to Mrs. Lincoln to save her husband haunted him during his lifetime and the telling of the moment when the injury was discovered was so poignant and powerful, I found tears on my cheeks.
My recent Lincoln experience (here) converged perfectly with Dr. Leale’s descriptions and I could “see” the places mentioned in my mind. I thought it was a brilliant presentation of history. I learned some new factss related to what I already knew in a new way. Ultimately, it was inspirational and hopeful…and highly recommended.
The artistic team is led by Director Trevor Hay. Scenic Design is by David Buess and Hay, Sound Design is by Erik Carstensen, Costume Design is by Abigail Caywood, Scenic Construction is by Matt Marsden, Lighting Design is by Chris Rynne, and Projection Design is by Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder.
The performance schedule for Hershey Felder’s AN AMERICAN STORY is Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $60 for performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and $65 for Fridays through Sundays. Tickets are now on sale at Royal George Theatre at 312.988.9000. Box-office hours are 10 am - 6 pm Tuesday through Saturday. Tickets may also be purchased online at www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.
Following this Chicago premiere, Felder will present a series of new productions at The Royal George Theatre, including I FOUND MY HORN, an import from the London stage starring Jonathan Guy Lewis (Soldier, Soldier; London’s Burning; Coronation Street). Written by author, journalist and playwright Jasper Reese and directed by Harry Burton, the touching comedy I FOUND MY HORN is the story of a middle-aged divorcee who finds a whole new reason to live by rediscovering his childhood French Horn. THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, a critical and commercial success in Los Angeles and Boston, starring pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek, features the true story of her mother, a young concert pianist who survives World War II. To conclude the season, Felder will be creating and presenting a new musical story about fathers and sons entitled LEM, starring Christopher Lemmon as his father, the stage and film star Jack Lemmon.
Photos: Eighty Eight, LLC