A pianist in Paris

Hershey Felder's latest celebrates the music of Debussy and the City of Light

As its title suggests, pianist/actor/writer Hershey Felder's latest one-man show, "A Paris Love Story," tells the story of a man's relationship with the beloved French city. Men's relationship, actually, because in this case, the story involves both composer Claude Debussy and Felder himself.

"A Paris Love Story," which is making its world premiere with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is the latest in a string of big successes for Felder in Mountain View in which he inhabits -- accent, facial hair and all -- the role of a great composer. Previous stints have included Irving Berlin, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. This show is a bit different, however, in that Felder shares a very personal and special connection to the work of Debussy, who, we learn, was the favorite composer of his late mother.

In "A Paris Love Story," Felder switches between speaking as himself and as Debussy, who also posthumously watches over young Felder on his first trip to Paris as a 19-year-old. Together they offer information about Debussy's life and career as well as take a journey throughout the historic boulevards and noteworthy landmarks of Paris. And, of course, there is plenty of music, both in the form of recorded orchestrations and Felder's always-impressive live playing.

We learn that Debussy, who lived from 1862-1918, was desperate to break free from the old-fashioned German-style trends in music and always searching for the "new" in his own Impressionist work, loathing Wagner and loving the Javanese gamelan orchestra he encountered. We hear his mystical, nature-inspired compositions including the famous "Clair de Lune" (moonlight) and "La Mer" (the sea). And we hear, too, about his many ill-fated romances, including not one but two jilted flames who shoot themselves; his beloved only child "Chou-Chou;" and his excruciating, illness-plagued final years set against the horrors of the first world war.

We also wander with young Felder and ghostly Debussy past such landmarks as the Cathedral de Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe de l Etoile and into Debussy's former flat. Felder's acting and musicianship have been widely -- and deservedly -- praised, but let's take a minute here to laud the scenic and projection design by Felder and Christopher Ash. A Parisian bridge, lit by gas lamps, showcases the grand piano placed in the center. Above are charming, animated chalk sketches of Paris coming to life and appearing to float as if by magic, along with fish, soaring birds, snowfall and more. It's a gorgeous visual complement to the dreamlike music and practically makes the city a character in its own right.

The production is just one act, no intermission, led by Felder's longtime director Trevor Hay. Because his shows allow him to address the audience directly (and because he is very good at it), Felder easily creates a warm rapport with the crowd. He's responsive to the audience's reactions, including in moments of humor. His inclusion of his own connection to Debussy, as well as to the city he loved, lends a touching and special quality to the show. There's a surprising bit where he gracefully moves -- dances really -- with a scarf, adding to the general lyrical tone.

As a character and a life story, however, Debussy himself comes across as less interesting than some of Felder's other subjects. A bit dull, in fact, as he mostly complains about other composers, compliments his own work or chronicles his various romantic exploits. He does have a cheeky French charm about him, though, when wryly watching over young Felder and following him throughout the city. And while his music isn't as familiar or immediately gripping as that of some of the others in Felder's stable, when the projections are flowing and Felder is at the piano, the effect is spellbinding.

"A Paris Love Story" might not be the first Hershey Felder show I'd recommend to someone who'd never seen him before but it will please his loyal fans and prove an enchanting introduction to newcomers. There are certainly worse ways to spend an early spring evening than letting a master like Felder take you on a dreamy trip through the Paris moonlight.

What: "Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story, Featuring the music of Claude Debussy."

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

When: Through May 5 (performance times vary).

Cost: $40-$120.

Info: TheatreWorks or 650-463-1960.

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