I have respectfully declined reviewing all the heartfelt online streaming presentations offered us these past difficult months by theatre companies trying to remain active and relevant through the pandemic. It’s not the work, promise—it’s me.
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this in print but personally, I have an always been challenged when it comes to the art of film. Ask anyone who has ever been to a play with me and I'll bet they'll confirm that never once have I ever fallen asleep in a theatre, but stick me in front of a movie screen and I'm usually out like a light in about 25 minutes. This is not something of which I'm proud, but it is the truth. See, I think having been obsessed with and intent on creating (and supporting) theatre since the age of three when I was coaxed onstage in a summer run of Oklahoma! to belt out lyrics about “carrots and pertaters,” my priorities began to germinate early on. That’s 71 years, if anyone who knows me is busy doing the math.
I have always had difficulty concentrating on film, finding it hard to care or relate to something stored in a can, the performances languishing there etched in cement and never allowed the spontaneity of live performance that makes my heart sing. This is surely the major reason why, despite coming to Hollywood a few hundred years ago under contract to a major film studio, I stupidly chose to fuckitup bigtime and instead focus on a stage career in a town that basically couldn’t care less about theatre.
So, despite eliciting the disappointment of many of my colleagues creating incredible online art over the past year, I have eschewed reviewing online performances even more wholeheartedly than I have over the years during which I have declined numerous offers to become a film reviewer, something I’m sure would have provided me a far more profitable career if I wasn’t such a stubborn fellow. I like to think of myself as passionate about art, but sadly my passions have limitations guaranteed to be surprising to most people.
That said, the remarkable and prolific Mr. Hershey Felder, one of my all-time favorite theatre artists, has chosen over the past 14-plus months to not quietly sit at home in Florence, Italy, staring at his historic villa’s sweeping views and to continue to create art as no one else on the planet could make happen. This began with a live streamed performance of his amazing George Gershwin Alone, his first of 11 such events offered online since we all went into our collective lockdown. I first saw Hershey’s magical solo turn playing the great man and accompanying himself on the piano over 20 years ago, debuting here in LA at the long-gone Tiffany Theatre and proving to be a career-making moment that subsequently made the guy famous.
Hershey’s return as Gershwin, shot live at his Florence home in the dead of night so it could debut live here at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon, was pure electricity. This was followed by recreating several other of his mesmerizing performances in his globally acclaimed “Composer Sonata” series, including turns as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Debussy, and his indelibly memorable performance as Irving Berlin broadcast from a gloriously grand old Florence theatre complete with a oddly charming 400-year-old creaking wooden stage floor.
Since filming his previous successful touring solo performances live from Italy, Hershey has courageously begun to experiment with more self-produced filmic presentations never before seen on the world stage. These included brand new turns as Puccini, featuring a troupe of opera stars appearing opposite him that energized the new direction of his unique musical creations as never before, followed by Before Fiddler, chronicling the life and origins of the work of Shalom Aleichem—and including sweetly charming versions of the writer’s early folk tales.
The main thing to be impressed with here has been the exquisite and painstakingly constructed production values energizing these new filmed creations, including richly evocative montages of lush European imagery as the show's multitalented creator simultaneously gifts his grateful audiences with his worldclass skills as a concert pianist.
Hershey’s latest creation debuted online recently (and as with all his previous streaming efforts partially benefitting the many mid-sized theatres here in the states that have been his artistic homes over the years) and it emerged as one of the most impressive contributions to the filmed “Composer Sonata” offerings yet. Based on the script he was perfecting to begin touring last summer before the pandemic stopped it cold, Nicholas, Anna & Sergei, documenting the life and musical genius of Sergei Rachmaninoff, is even more beautifully produced and filmed than its predecessors.
Although it’s ever-brave and always-inventive creator originally conceived Nicholas, Anna & Sergei as a solo show with him ambitiously appearing as all the characters, the film version instead features Hershey as the title character opposite J. Anthony Crane as the ghost of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Helen Farrell as Anna Anderson, the real-life mystery woman who professed to be the lone survivor of the Romanov dynasty, the Tsar’s daughter Anastasia, as well as Ekaterina Siurina as Rachmaninoff’s wife Natalia and Igor Polesitsky as the doctor who treats the composer as he lies dying at his final home in Beverly Hills.
Co-directed by Hershey and Italian cinematographer Stefano DeCarli, their highly personalized production is majestically, lavishly presented, giving us a fascinating insight into the tumultuous world of the Russian-born composer who spent his life mourning his furtive flight from his homeland. His dreams are haunted by the ghost of the dispatched Tsar as Sergei laments his life choices, admitting that his work had suffered for it. “Melody,” we’re told in Hershey’s tale, “abandoned him when he left Russia for the USA.” There is a hint of redemption when he meets and financially champions Anderson until he more and more begins to question the validity of her story, all of which is admitted to the phantom Nicholas as the composer lies dying at 610 N. Elm Drive, the home Rachmaninoff prophetically said would be the place where he would die the minute he saw it.
Hershey’s gossamer, lyrical, painstakingly researched script is most arresting part of Nicholas, Anna & Sergei, especially when he then turns to the piano and in detail identifies familiar moments in the great man’s work that inspired the dulcet, hypnotic compositions that will remain timeless contributions to the history of music.
There are definite pros and cons to experiencing Hershey’s musical artistry online, although I don’t recommend trying to watch it (with streaming issues no less) on a cellphone as I did the first time—and I have to thank one Mr. Felder himself for asking me to watch it again on a bigger screen utilizing a better link he sent me. This was great advice, particularly when considering the teeny-weeny iPhone-sized subtitles flashed onscreen during the film’s scenes spoken in Russian.
The pros obviously include the sweeping cinemagraphic images, the detailed costuming, and the employment of some dynamic actors and an amazing full symphony-sized uniformly masked orchestra. Still, the best thing to me was being able to see Hershey’s hands in closeup as he masterfully interpreted the music of Rachmaninoff—although I have to admit I did miss hearing the compositions ring out live in a darkened auditorium fitted for excellent sound rather than through my computer’s tinny speakers.
The bold new direction of Hershey Felder’s brilliance soars to new heights with Nicholas, Anna & Sergei and, since he has recently teased that an announcement of an entire new season of more such courageous artistic experimentation is in the works for next year, if you haven’t returned to civilization quite yet, I suggest you take the time to explore the wonders of this unstoppable artist’s unique online performances of the last year, available for viewing with Video on Demand at www.hersheyfelder.net.