Entertainer Hershey Felder's idea for his new stage production he's sampling for audiences in Chicago, happened quite accidentally.
"It was a few years ago, when I was doing research about George Gershwin at the Library of Congress," Felder told me last week, chatting from his Chicago hotel on what was a very snowy Wednesday.
"And while looking through materials, I just happened to stumble upon some files that had reference to the last hours of Abraham Lincoln and those who tended to his final moments. From this, an idea came to me, which I've worked on, both on and off, until the production I have now in Chicago was ready for audiences."
Felder's Eighty-Eight Entertainment is presenting the Chicago Premiere of "American Story for Actor and Orchestra," using music and story, to tell the story of Lincoln's last day. The limited engagement at The Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted, running through April 14.
He tells me this Chicago premiere follows successful tryout productions in Los Angeles and San Diego.
"I never think of Chicago as an audience to fine-tune a performance," Felder said.
"Chicago audiences are the best and very intelligent. These are the people who know and love the theater experience."
"An American Story" features an original book and score by Felder and is performed with a live orchestra. It draws upon the songs of great American composer Stephen Foster, as well as President Lincoln's own words, based on true events as Felder explains it, "seen through the eyes of a simple young man who suddenly found himself at the center of world history."
Set in New York City in 1932, the stage story tells of 90-year old Dr. Charles Leale sharing his true story as he travels back in time and recounts the events that changed his life forever 67 years prior. 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. Felder's new production is based on Dr. Leale's account, 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.
Following this Chicago premiere, Felder said he will present a series of new productions at The Royal George Theatre, including "I Found My Horn," what he says is an import from the London stage, starring Jonathan Guy Lewis. Written by author, journalist and playwright Jasper Reese and directed by Harry Burton, it's the comedy tale of a middle-aged divorcee who finds a whole new reason to live by rediscovering his childhood French Horn. And then, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," a critical and commercial success in Los Angeles and Boston, starring pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek in the true story of her mother, who is a young concert pianist who survives World War II. To conclude the season, Felder said he will be creating and presenting a new musical story about fathers and sons titled "Lem," starring Christopher Lemmon as his father, stage and film star Jack Lemmon.
"An American Story" runs 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $60 to $65 by calling (312) 988-9000 or visit theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.