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Monsieur Chopin, Alive and in Concert at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

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It must be such a delight to make use of your particular skill set—to be able to combine all your best talents in one special project. That’s what pianist-actor-playwright-professor Hershey Felder has done, not once but several times, creating and performing in one-person shows as Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein. I don’t know how I missed his previous appearances at Berkeley Rep, when he brought the latter two men here, but I did get to see him lately as Chopin. That show was so good, I’m happy to report that Felder will be back as Monsieur Chopin in September. For a change of pace, Felder will also lead an Irving Berlin sing-along before he leaves town.

With his flowing hair, swallow-tail coat and dark cravat, his Polish accent and imperious manner, Felder embodies Frédéric Chopin, the Polish Romantic composer who died in Paris in 1849, before he reached 40. (Among many other interesting tidbits, Felder/Chopin explains that, despite the blood on the piano keys in the 1945 movie A Song to Remember, with Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon, he did not die of tuberculosis.) As he talks about Chopin’s ethereal, inventive music, his happy childhood in Warsaw, his first and greatest love, his disdain for Beethoven and Liszt, his life in France and, for a time, with the scandalous novelist George Sand and her children on Mallorca and south of Paris, Felder performs 15 of Chopin’s beautiful compositions, from the Juvenile Polonaise, G Minor, which he wrote at age seven, to one of the composer’s most famous pieces, Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op. 53.

As Chopin, Felder is both funny and fascinating. In an extra bit of inspiration, he ends the almost two-hour show taking questions—still as Chopin—from the audience. When I was there, one woman told the composer she thinks of him whenever she goes to the market, because she always takes a Chopin Liszt. (Say the names out loud if you don’t get it.) Another person wondered why Chopin composed only for piano. This gave Felder a chance to plunk-plunk-plink his way up the keyboard to show us how the piano contains all the other instruments, from bass to trumpet to flute and piccolo, so who needs an orchestra? This inventive format gave Chopin/Felder, who seemed prepared for anything, further opportunity to scoff at Beethoven and Liszt, to discuss his erratic moods and manner, to explain why his heart is interred in a church in Warsaw while his body lies in Paris’s famed Père Lachaise cemetery—next to Jim Morrison’s, in fact.

So you don’t have to be a classical music lover to enjoy this show, though it’s hard to see how you could depart inured to Chopin’s glorious music. As Felder says in this video: “His compositions…are inventions the likes of which we never saw before and have not seen since…. He really was the poet of the piano. And what is fun for me is to look into that life and try and see where such magic came from. There’s something miraculous about his talent.”

Felder, who considers Berkeley Rep ”one of the finest theaters in the country,” has said, “It’s always a treat to be back here and…to perform the different characters for the wonderful Bay Area audiences.” So how about coming back again, Hershey, and performing as Beethoven or Liszt, or even Gershwin or Bernstein once more? I’d applaud that for sure.

Sept. 16-21, Monsieur Chopin; Sept. 22, Irving Berlin sing-along, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, 510.647.2949, berkeleyrep.org.

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