Chicago theater audiences have praised the work of pianist, actor, writer and producer Hershey Felder for many years, most notably through his one-man stage shows about musical icons such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
But in recent years the work of this prolific, multi-talented, Canadian-born artist of Jewish heritage — who began his career in the United States and then moved to Paris and Florence — has taken a new direction in the form of an ever-expanding series of “musical films.” , which he calls “music films” and which can be shown on the Internet.
These productions, now in their second season, are a fascinating, imaginative blend of theatre, concert, film and travelogue – a unique blend of the virtues of a lively ‘live’ production and the scale of film.
The latest release of such a production is ‘Musical Tales of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto’, an excellent blend of story, music and personal experience that also serves as an excellent substitute for the trip to the fabled city of Venice you may have dreamed of for years last or have recently decided to postpone due to COVID.
Felder’s vivid travelogue takes you through the often-overlooked history of the Jewish community that took root in Venice from the 16th century and was a crucial element in the city’s economy for centuries. And although the Jewish ghetto looks very different today, it still retains its beautiful baroque synagogues and is brought to life through the music, historical notes and moving family stories provided by Felder and his many associates. You’ll even be treated to a wonderful gondola ride along a canal along the way.
Contributors to this feature film include Francesco da Mosto, who was born into a prominent Venetian family and is known for his BBC Two documentary series, Francesco’s Italy. He and his son Vittorio trace the genesis of the ghetto – its essential role in making Venice a commercial city; its population of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews; his treatment by Shakespeare of the character of the Jewish moneylender Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; Napoleon’s surprising opening of the ghetto; the city’s preserved Jewish cemeteries and its current existence as a center of Jewish culture, even if the population today is just under 500.
Felder will also be joined by two actors/writers – Brooklyn-born Eleanor Reissa (whose story of her father surviving Auschwitz is absolutely captivating) and Tovah Feldshuh (whose grandparents fled the pogroms and who sings here in Hebrew). And while Felder is alternately interviewer, pianist and “tourist” in Venice, he makes sure that the music plays a crucial role.
Seamlessly integrated into the story and storytelling are the wonderfully engaging, virtuoso Israeli-American cellist Amit Peled (who has had the privilege of playing Pablo Casal’s Venetian cello), as well as the superb, spirited musicians of the Klezmerata Fiorentina, an ensemble whose style described as “improvised klezmer chamber music” and includes Ukrainian-born Igor Polesitsky (violin), Riccardo Crocilla (clarinet), Francesco Furlanich (accordion) and Riccardo Donati (bass).
All in all a trip not to be missed. And you don’t even have to worry about your luggage being lost at the airport.
A final note: Felder regularly donates a portion of the ticket sales for these musical films to support a number of regional theaters across the United States, including Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre.
For details on this unique tour of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto and all of Felder’s other “music films” and future projects, visit HersheyFelder.net.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic