Never mind all those recordings: We've probably never heard the best works of Chopin. His friend, the painter Eugene Delacroix, argued that the Polish artist's boldest inventions were the ones he made up on the spot, spontaneous displays of counterpoint and lyricism that revolutionized the expressive possibilities of the piano.
We meet this master of improvisation in "Monsieur Chopin: The Music of Fryderyk Chopin," Hershey Felder's spirited biography cum music lesson now at the Geffen Playhouse and the second in actor-writer-musician Felder's trilogy of impersonations on famous composers. (His "George Gershwin Alone" recently completed its Geffen run, and Felder's set to take on Beethoven next.)
It's March 4, 1848, in Paris -- a date whose significance will be revealed at the end of the show -- when the master arrives back at his salon to instruct us, and he has to make quite an entrance to avoid being upstaged by the set.
Yael Pardess' lush design features a lilac-curtained room of objets enameled and ormolu, vases crammed with fresh blooms, and a 9-foot grand piano center stage, all bordered by a giant gilt frame. It's a cross between Beaux Arts and Hammer Horror films, luxury teetering on excess (the equally dramatic lighting is by Anne Militello).
The engaging Felder, sporting Chopin's trademark sweep of hair and a trim frock coat, begins by narrating key events in the composer's life, punctuating them with performances of his well-known works, including Marche Funèbre and Polonaise in A-Flat Major. We learn about an early family tragedy that marked him forever, Poland's suffering at the hands of Russian invaders, and his conflicted relationship with novelist George Sand.
All perfectly respectable, but Felder's natural buoyancy feels at odds with some of the material, and he and director Joel Zwick tend to lean toward the light.
There's a vivid, compelling moment when the artist, composing in a dank monastery in Spain, convinces himself that Sand and her two children have been killed, but for the most part, this is a Chopin who would have been at home in the Catskills -- Van Cliburn by way of Rich Little.
After a final polonaise, Felder announces the lesson is over; we're invited to attend the salon, where Chopin will do what he apparently did best: improvise, on the keyboard and with us. The house lights rise, and Felder is suddenly in his element, surfing the shifting energy of the audience, twisting a heckle into a joke, dancing with the details of Chopin's life and times, firing out opinion, fact and quip with rat-tat timing. It's a deft turn, demonstrating Felder's insight that 19th century salons were a nonstop round of talent night.
More infectious than revelatory, closer to the giddiness of stand-up than sustained theater, Felder's "Monsieur Chopin" insists on the irreducible pleasure of live shows, of artfulness made in the moment. It is a performer's esprit this show articulates, while letting the enduring beauty of Chopin's written oeuvre speak for itself.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m.
Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Aug. 26
Price: $15 to $69
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 2 hours