CAMBRIDGE -- The line between the romantic and the sentimental is an exceedingly fine one, and it becomes ever more difficult to see in a culture that imagines itself romantic but is in fact deeply, childishly sentimental. Nevertheless, it is a distinction worth preserving, unless we are willing to let the plangent voice of a solo violin be drowned by a thousand and one strings.
Things get pretty soppy sometimes in ``Monsieur Chopin," which the American Repertory Theatre has brought here after its successful Chicago premiere. But Hershey Felder, the show's gifted creator and sole performer, clearly feels deeply attuned to the Romantic sensibility, not just the romantic. And, in his finest moments, he carries a rapt audience along on a wave of true, powerful, and wordless passion.
Felder, whom audiences in Cambridge and elsewhere cheered in his previous one-man show, ``George Gershwin Alone," here displays a fiery, fierce, and varied piano technique that beautifully suits Chopin's music. When Felder (blond-tressed and impeccably attired in the designer Boguslaw's handmade morning jacket), devotes his full attention to the piano, the passionate vitality of the work is irresistible.
But this is a play, not a concert, and so there is inevitably much besides playing. The show's conceit has Chopin giving us a piano lesson in his Paris apartment, less than two years before his death. Some of the lesson is engrossing, as when Felder offers insights into Chopin's creative process or reflections on his aesthetic philosophy. And some of it, unfortunately, has all the subtlety of a Harlequin romance.
Early on, we visit the funeral of the composer's beloved sister. ``I remember bells," he intones, and we hear them -- followed, in what is meant to be a chilling stroke, by the famous opening chords of the ``Funeral March." That might work. But it's pushed over the edge by the next, overwrought lines: ``I remember a cold, empty hole in the ground. I remember gravestones, hovering and hungry." And then he remembers (and replicates) his mother, screaming in Polish, which he helpfully translates even in his paroxysm of grief.
Certainly such excesses are not foreign to the romantic taste. But it requires incredible delicacy to convey them without sliding into parody, and too often ``Monsieur Chopin" fails to avoid the slide. It does not help that, at every emotional peak, Felder is engulfed by John Boesche's giant projections, literal-minded illustrations of the feelings that are so much more affectingly expressed by the music: a peasant girl in full Lowenbrau , twirling in sun-dappled slo-mo; a flickering candle for a moment of despair; George Sand superimposed on the e'er-radiant moon.
It's frustrating, because there are moments of surpassing beauty here. When the projections fade, and Richard Norwood's lights play in delicately shifting hues over the sheer dove-gray curtains of Yael Pardess's elegant set, the washes of color allow us to dream our own images in tune with Felder's wonderful playing.
The postscript, too, is delightful: Felder emerges from his character and comments on him, then gives a charming demonstration of the pianist's performances in Paris salons.
Suddenly a solution becomes clear. Instead of hitting us over the head with a piano lesson -- which, after all, is an odd pretense to sustain in a room filled with hundreds of people -- Felder could have structured the piece (already reworked once from the problematic ``Romantique," and now presented as the midsection of a trilogy that is to culminate in Beethoven) as an evening in a salon.
He'd have the same chance to perform, to weave conversation into the melodies, and to indulge our appetite for anecdote and epigram. But somehow it wouldn't feel quite so indulgent.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.