Multitalented touring performer Hershey Felder has built a loyal Chicago following with his musical portraits of composers such as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. In his newest piece, he portrays a different kind of historical figure: Dr. Charles Leale, the Union Army surgeon who was at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. Leale was the first to respond to cries for a medic and, despite his young age, became at Mary Todd Lincoln’s insistence the president’s primary caretaker for the nine hours before he passed away.
Felder opens on Leale in 1932, 90 years of age and ready to recount for us the most momentous night of his life and how he arrived there. Felder’s primary source is Leale’s own account, written within days of Lincoln’s death and rediscovered in the National Archives last year. He enlivens his telling by interpolating songs of the day, including several Stephen Foster tunes, as well as a few compositions of Felder’s own, all performed by an 11-piece onstage orchestra.
Felder’s an engaging stage presence, but his script tries too hard to establish Leale as a 19th-century Forrest Gump, even if the details—He saw the Booth brothers perform Julius Caesar’s assassination weeks before Lincoln’s! He encountered Walt Whitman volunteering at a Union Army hospital!—are true to life. And the dialogue gets mired down in repetition and cliché (the phrase “whatever the cost” recurs again and again). Perhaps the facts of Lincoln’s final days are just too well-known in our current cultural moment for even a new perspective to escape dramatic inertia.