When Frederic Chopin played the piano, the ladies swooned. So did much of Europe. Robert Schumann, on hearing the great 19th-century composer perform, responded with one of the most ringing endorsements in musical history: "Hats off, gentlemen -- a genius!"

Hershey Felder clearly agrees. The acclaimed playwright-performer is back at Berkeley Repertory Theatre with a one-man show devoted to Chopin, an often captivating bio-drama celebrating the composer's life and works.

"Monsieur Chopin," which plays through Aug. 10 on the company's Thrust Stage, adds to Felder's gallery of shows based on famous musicians. (He performed "George Gershwin Alone" at Berkeley Rep in 2013, and "Maestro," about Leonard Bernstein, earlier this year; Felder also directed "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," starring Mona Golabek, for the company last October.)

JOHN ZICH/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATREMusician and actor Hershey Felder portrays legendary composer Frederic Chopin, whom he calls "The Poet of the
JOHN ZICH/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE Musician and actor Hershey Felder portrays legendary composer Frederic Chopin, whom he calls "The Poet of the Piano," in his new solo show. ( John Zich )

Briskly directed by Joel Zwick, "Chopin" blends music and anecdote, history and humor, as Felder, in character as Chopin throughout, recounts the story -- or, at least, hits the highs and lows, from the Polish composer's birth, in 1810 near Warsaw, to his death, at age 39, in Paris. It's an intriguing glimpse into the Romantic era and an opportunity for Polish pride: Sunday's opening included a special appearance by Mariusz Brymora, consul general of the Republic of Poland in Los Angeles, who paid tribute to Felder.


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Felder structures the show as a music lesson; unlike many composers of his era, Chopin didn't focus on concertizing, but made his living largely by performing and teaching in the salons of wealthy Parisian patrons. Yael Pardess' set, dominated by a grand piano, suggests an intimate salon, with Richard Norwood's lighting, and projections by John Boesche and Andrew Wilder, adding to the refined atmosphere. Felder, in Romantic-era garb and a longish wig, puts his would-be students in their place right away. "Perhaps it would be best," he says, "if you allow me to do all the playing."

Music is the constant thread, a lifelong passion that produced some of the most dazzling solo piano works ever written. Chopin was a child prodigy -- he composed his first polonaise at age 7 -- and the show charts his rise from the young artist who idolized Mozart to the skilled improviser who became the darling of Paris. If the narrative doesn't fill in much beyond the common knowledge -- his extreme sensitivity and often obsessive behavior, his associations with the poets, painters and authors of his generation, including a close eight-year relationship with writer George Sand -- Felder's assured performances of Chopin's mazurkas, romances, preludes and nocturnes speak volumes.

Felder also proves a master of the quick aside, and he deploys his comic timing in one-liners that illuminate Chopin's often misanthropic view of society. As he reviles his critics, ridicules the manners of "swinish" Parisians and dismisses composers such as Liszt as mere noisemakers, the performance yields a portrait of the artist as an exacting and often melancholy individual. His luck seems to run out when Sand, who whisked him away from Paris to an abandoned monastery in Spain, finally throws him out and severs their relationship.

There isn't quite enough in Felder's characterization to make the one hour, 45 minute (without intermission) performance an unqualified success. Although he clearly admires Chopin's music, Felder the actor seemed more at home playing the American composers Gershwin and Bernstein. A question-and-answer session with the opening night audience dispelled some of the atmosphere he'd managed to create.

Still, when Felder turns to the piano, "Monsieur Chopin" is enchanting. As the evening drew to a close, Felder played the composer's great Polonaise in A-flat major, bringing out the work's Romantic sensitivity and rhythmic drive. In moments like that, genius seemed an apt description.

'MONSIEUR CHOPIN'

Created and performed
by Hershey Felder

Through: Aug. 10
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage,
2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Tickets: $29-$87;
510-647-2949,
www.berkeleyrep.org