Portrait of a master: Pianist Hershey Felder dazzles in ‘Monsieur Chopin’

“Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin — A Play With Music” — 3 stars

“Music is what reminds us we are human.”

So proclaims Fryderyk Chopin (as conjured by pianist/playwright/actor/composer Hershey Felder) during the opening moments of Felder’s solo show, “Monsieur Chopin — A Play With Music,” presented by Writers Theatre as the penultimate production of its 2023-2024 season.

Felder’s Chopin makes his case over the two hours that follow in a combination bio-drama, concert and music appreciation seminar that offers an entertaining glimpse into the mind and method of one of the Romantic era’s master composers.

The time is 1848, a year before Chopin’s death. The place is his Paris salon (tastefully designed by Felder, it’s dominated by a grand piano and furnished with brocade-covered furniture, gilded mirrors and flickering candles). The occasion is a piano lesson, with the audience cast as the maestro’s students.

Writer and star Hershey Felder performs his solo show, “Monsieur Chopin — A Play With Music,” at Writers Theatre through May 12. Courtesy of Hershey Felder

Over the course of the “lesson,” Chopin shares his life story, musical philosophy and excerpts from his compositions, which Felder plays with dazzling delicacy.

The compositions serve as the score against which the composer’s memories unfold: his early years as a child prodigy in his native Poland; the death of his younger sister (which the play suggests haunts him the rest of his life); the Russian invasion that fueled his fervent nationalism and deep affection for his country’s music, as evidenced by the influence of Polish music — notably the polonaise and mazurka dance forms — in his compositions. The composer goes on to reminisce about life in Paris, his popularity among its aristocrats and his failed romances, including a long-term affair with French writer George Sand.

Directed by TV sitcom veteran Joel Zwick and accompanied by video designer Erik Carstensen’s period slideshow, “Monsieur Chopin” is a well-researched, straightforward biography that only scratches the surface of its subject. The play hints at Chopin’s inner turmoil, likely the result of persistent ill health, unresolved grief and depression. The latter is reflected in designer Erik S. Barry’s lighting, which dims to surround Felder’s Chopin in darkness, a not-so-subtle metaphor for melancholy. However, Felder never examines in depth Chopin’s apparently troubled psyche, which makes this portrait of the artist incomplete.

Nineteen years after he introduced “Monsieur Chopin — A Play With Music” to Chicago, pianist/playwright/actor/composer Hershey Felder revives the show at Writers Theatre. Courtesy of Hershey Felder

Still, “Monsieur Chopin” — one of the many tributes to master composers Felder has created over nearly three decades — is as enjoyable today as it was 19 years ago when he introduced it to Chicago. A competent actor, Felder plays Chopin, who died at age 39, as a charmingly vulnerable genius prone to melancholy who valued art over fame. The latter is evidenced by his dismissal of pyrotechnics employed by his rival, Hungarian composer/pianist Franz Liszt (the subject of several funny, not entirely unfriendly asides).

Ultimately, Felder’s virtuosity — evidenced by his interpretation of Chopin’s elegantly agitated “Fantaisie-Impromptu” and touching renditions of the “Farewell Waltz” and the light, lovely mazurka in G-minor that serves as the finale — propels the show, which also includes brief interludes where he takes questions from the audience.

The Q&A offers a more intimate portrait of the composer. Answering a question about his process, Monsieur Chopin explains, “everything you hear is something that I feel.” Having experienced his playing, I suspect Felder might offer the same response.

• • •

Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through May 12. Also 3 p.m. May 1. No 6 p.m. show April 21 and May 5

Tickets: $35-$90

Running time: About 110 minutes, no intermission

Parking: On the street

Rating: For most audiences

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