NEW YORK — At about 10, Hershey Felder had to make a decision that would change his life: Pick acting or pick the piano. He chose to tickle the ivories.
"You can't fake this," the genial Canadian-born performer explains, seated at a piano onstage at the venerated Times Square concert venue The Town Hall. "No one is born a great actor."
But, the truth is, Felder never really gave up being a ham. He just combined his virtuoso playing with an ability to dive into a character to create something only he could do.
What do get when you blend an accomplished pianist and an actor? Simple — one-man shows about such composers as George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven. Irving Berlin is next.
"Combining the two had been a lifelong lesson and I'll still be learning until I die," he said. "If I've learned anything over these years — it's been now 25 years I've been doing this — is that there's no shortcut."
Felder, 46, is back in New York on Thursday for a special performance of "Maestro Bernstein," his portrayal of the pianist, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein who was behind such masterpieces as "West Side Story" and his own "Mass."
Using projections and a piano to recreate key musical phrases, Felder traces Bernstein's rise from prodigy to celebrated composer while not shying away from the musical giant's complicated personal life.
Felder has created a fan from no less than Alexander Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's second child. The younger Bernstein said he was initially apprehensive about seeing the show but was quickly won over by Felder's skill.
"He gets him on a deep level but doesn't try to act like him or talk like him," said Bernstein. "A full picture is fine with me as long as it's honest and not salacious."
Felder may have specialized in portraying past musical giants, but he's not interested in being too reverential. For the Chopin work, his first line to the audience is: "I trust that each of you has come prepared with something to play, yes?"
"We're not a mothball company. You don't go in and it has that smell, 'Oh, it feels like a museum,'" he said. "It's the idea of making them real people."
It is work that Felder is passionate about even if it isn't the easiest way to make a living. Trevor Hay, the associate director, has seen what the one-man shows do to Felder for the past six years.
"He makes it looks so easy on stage that when I first saw him I thought, 'Well, he's an incredible pianist and he's pretty good with a crowd.' Then I realized there's so much more craft going on," Hay said.
"I think that's the mark of brilliant acting: when it doesn't look like acting. It's just smooth and effortless. And then he's backstage and he's exhausted because it isn't effortless."
While "Maestro Bernstein," has played Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Chicago's Royal George Theatre and the Cleveland Play House, it's never played The Town Hall before.
That's notable because the New York venue has a special place in Bernstein's lore. On Nov. 13, 1943, it was where he premiered his children song cycle "I Hate Music," the first time a paying crowd listened to one of his compositions.
The next day, the then-25-year-old got the call to conduct the New York Philharmonic when a guest conductor was ill. Bernstein's debut was so good he made the front page of The New York Times the next morning.
So Felder's first time performing on The Town Hall stage will be the same place where Bernstein had a pivotal moment. "It'll be fun," he says, slapping the wood beams.