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“In the days following your performance at Westmer, I heard many favorable comments from students and teachers. We were impressed by your sensitivity to the audiences as you were able to change the direction of a story and alter inflection or volume to regain the children’s attention. Your material was appropriate for each age group, and the children enjoyed listening.”
” I wish I could adequately express my delight regarding your performance as Abraham Lincoln during the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Annual Awards Dinner…” “Your performance was absolutely outstanding and I was completely mesmerized throughout its duration. I can also relay to you how profoundly moved our attendees were that evening. My telephone has not stopped ringing!”
“Fritz Klein IS Abraham Lincoln – He exhibits all the complexity, wisdom, and great country humor that Lincoln possessed. We could not imagine a better Lincoln impersonator – our audiences spoke in raving terms about his appearance at our recent Civil War reenactment. We have invited him back.”
Fritz Klein has become Springfield’s go-to Abraham Lincoln presenter. He’s all over town — in “History Comes Alive” presentations, at news conferences, chiming in on tourism presentations. And now he’s omnipresent in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum’s production of James Still’s play, “The Heavens Are Hung in Black.”
Except for a few Walt Whitman interludes, Klein is in every scene and on stage for more than two hours of the two-hour, 20-minute production. It’s a tour-de-force of endurance and line memorization, if nothing else.
But there is, in fact, something else. Klein also turns out to be the best actor in almost every scene, and this in a 20-some-character play that goes deep into central Illinois’ semipro acting community. “Heavens” is a quasi-mystical, highly imaginative look at Lincoln’s decision to propose the Emancipation Proclamation, with sidewise looks at military discipline, Gen. George McClellan’s “slows,” the Lincolns’ marriage, and the burden of the presidency. It’s complicated enough that the program includes a page with mini-bios of a dozen of the more-or-less major characters.
The play originally was commissioned for the Lincoln birthday bicentennial in 2009, as the inaugural production at the revamped Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The presidential museum, however, got an advance look at the script, and Phil Funkenbusch, who produced and directed the local version, says he’s been champing at the bit for nearly four years to put it on here.
One reason probably is that, although most of “Heavens” is staged around (and briefly beneath) Lincoln’s White House desk, what the play calls “the busy wilderness of Springfield” also plays no small role. One scene features a three-panel, blown-up photo of part of the Old Capitol square during the Lincoln family’s years in town, and both Abraham and Mary Lincoln (played by Pam Brown), remember the city wistfully. “Washington,” laments Mary, “lacks Springfield’s impulsive generosity.”
“Heavens” gets talky every now and then, delving, for instance, into the high weeds of the Dred Scott decision. And several characters, especially abolitionist John Brown (Patrick Foster) and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Stephan Kaplan) suffer from almost comically fake beards. As compensation, perhaps, Rick Dunham’s usual Elvis Himselvis pompadour adds color — and a couple inches in height — to Dunham’s portrayal of the shade of Stephen Douglas.
Otherwise, Funkenbusch’s staging is impeccable, thanks in great part to the availability of the presidential museum’s Union Theater. Nowhere else in town offers the same combination of technical sophistication and audience intimacy, not to mention the museum’s overall Lincoln aura. (Not that those of us attending Sunday’s matinee had a chance to enjoy any aura; a gauntlet of museum workers whisked us into the theater, apparently so no one got an illicit museum tour as a bonus for our $18 “Heavens” ticket.)
Supporting cast Pam Brown, almost as familiar to Springfieldians as Klein’s Abe, is a sympathetic and surprisingly vivacious Mary. Other supporting actors of note include Lucas McQuillan as Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, Matthew Donathan and Alex Remolina, portraying the scene-stealing Lincoln boys, and Lincoln Ghost Tour impresario Garret Moffett as the bluff bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. Corey M. Morrison deserves some kind of award for playing every black character — including an interesting one in the final scene about whom I’ll say no more.
James Daniels might be the only “Heavens” actor whose stage presence matches Klein’s — no small thing, since Daniels portrays 19th-century stage star Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes) in a scene that culminates in a Booth vs. Lincoln Shakespearean poetry slam. “Few die well that die in battle,” Lincoln concludes, reflecting his anguish at the Civil War’s carnage.
Time after time, Klein’s Lincoln pulls you in, from romping around his desk as Tad’s horsie to solemn debates with Stanton over whether to pardon sleepy Union sentries, to awkwardly consoling Mary over the shattering death of 11-year-old Willy. In the end, “Heavens’ is hostage to its Lincoln, and Fritz Klein is up to the job.
Thirty-five years in professional and educational theatre have taught me that the prime requisite for a performer is to know his audience. Fritz Klein as Abraham Lincoln not only knows the characteristics of particular age groups and interests, but he has that magical ability to adapt his performance to varying groups without sacrificing a whit of authenticity. Within a month’s time I saw Mr. Klein hold forth for a full-length performance mesmerizing an adult crowd that included many professional historians, and then a lively audience of elementary school children. Both performances grabbed and enraptured his audience. I’ve seen (and often directed) many Lincolns over the years, but Fritz Klein has distilled our 16th President into living, breathing national treasure.”
“… Our tour guide was fantastic and she was extremely professional, knowledgable, and make the tour exciting and educational. But my favorite part was what was waiting after the tour. Mr. Lincoln himself was standing in the back yard of the home after the tour! I wanted to take the time to say how much of an honor it was to meet this individual and how he made the trip and tour one of the best I have had. The gentleman playing Lincoln was AMAZING! He was extremely knowledgable, professional, and extremely polite. You could tell he was truly passionate about his job and the character he plays. He stood around patiently answering the many questions, taking pictures, and sharing stories. He looked exactly the part from the clothing, facial expressions, stance, voice, everything! I especially loved how he would answer questions or share stories either in character or out of character. I wish I knew his name, but I wanted to personally thank him for making the trip one to remember. He is a true asset to the facility and I hope to one day take the tour again and bring others to hear and see him. Thank you for making this an incredible tour! “
” ‘President-elect’ Lincoln was most entertaining . . humorous, modest and informative. Absolutely in period.” Morton Community Bank’s Hometown Community Travelers Travel Club October, 2013 luncheon at Jackson Truss Cover Bridge near Greenup, Illinois, after their visit to Lincoln’s mother’s home in Lerna, Illinois.
On October 1, forty-five members of Morton Community Bank’s Travel Club, Hometown Community Travelers left Morton on a Mystery Trip. The club’s Co-Travel Directors, Alison and Doug Robinson, had a real surprise for them. Their first stop was the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site near Lerna, Illinois. It was to this site Abraham Lincoln made several trips, the last in 1861, as President-elect, to make arrangements for the care of his step-mother, Sara, before leaving for Washington to be sworn in as our 16th President.
Following this stop, the group proceeded to the Cumberland County Covered Bridge just west of Greenup, IL, where a local Greenup caterer, Michael Saathoff, had tables and a picnic lunch set up on decking adjacent to the bridge. Just as the hungry travelers began to go through the buffet line, the group seemed to be ‘swept into a time warp,’ as President-elect Lincoln came strolling along the road on the way to see his mother.
Seeing him, Doug called over to Mr. Lincoln, asking him to join them and Mr. Lincoln readily agreed. While he graciously declined an offer to join the group for lunch, stating: “my mother expects me to arrive with a healthy appetite,” Mr. Lincoln spent a good bit of time visiting with them. The group learned Mr. Lincoln’s horse had earlier gone lame and he was thankful for the opportunity of stopping to rest and visit with, as he stated: “some good Republicans.” President-elect Lincoln was gracious enough to talk some about his thoughts and apprehensions about going to Washington and fielded several questions from the group, posed for some pictures and then continued on his way, at which point the group was swept back from the 1861 time warp into which it had been earlier transported.
Fritz Klein can fool just about anyone. The chin, the beard, the nose, the hair, the wingspan. The way he leans back when he stands and wags his finger. How he walks into an auditorium to the beat of “Hail to the Chief,” taking tiny bows while shaking hands with constituents, giving Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his money. Dress Klein in a top hat and an 1860s suit with coattails, and he is Abraham Lincoln.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” said Susan Grace Dittman, who wrote “Abraham Lincoln’s Shining Star — the Inspiring Story of Abraham Lincoln and Nebraska.”
Standing between two guards in Union attire at Sunday’s 14th annual Abraham Lincoln Birthday Celebration at Lincoln Southwest, Klein did what the 16th President of the United States always did: He told stories.
“When I was elected four years ago…You know, my mother…In fact, there’s a story about that…”
Klein, who has been acting since 1970 and playing Lincoln exclusively since 1980, says sometimes he even fools himself. “Once in a while,” Klein says, “I do feel like I have some presidential authority. Once in a while, there’s a glimmer. ”While living in Hawaii in 1976, Klein initially turned down the role of playing Lincoln in a community play. “But a professional makeup artist said to me, ‘Let me show you what we can do with you,’” Klein said. Since that first performance, Klein has portrayed Lincoln in feature films in both the U.S. and in Europe, and can count on one hand how many roles he’s turned down, including the most recent: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
Klein and his family moved to the Continental U.S. in 1980, wanting to settle down in a place where tourism would play a big role in the community. The perfect fit was Springfield, Ill., where Klein portrays Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, convincing thousands of what he himself first had to be convinced.
To assume the part in the beginning, he read a Benjamin B. Thomas biography of Lincoln and then Lincoln’s manuscripts. “I’ve learned to know and connect with him as an individual,” Klein said, adding he has a “substantial library” now of books dedicated to Lincoln.
Those studies have made his performance of Lincoln so believable that even if a question from the floor is asked at random, like why Nebraska is mentioned 13 times more than Kansas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Klein can give you Lincoln’s words on the subject. “Nebraska’s territory goes all the way up to Canada, you see …” he begins, giving a metaphor for how Nebraska was a pie and Kansas was but a mere slice, ending with an eloquent, “Did I sufficiently answer your question, sir?”
Klein, 65, intends to retire as Lincoln. He’s still got time though, since Lincoln looked much older than he was at the time of his death.
Klein continues to perform for the same reason that people showed up at the annual Lincoln birthday celebration on Sunday: Lincoln is important and inspirational.
“Lincoln had the biggest impact on Nebraska as a president than anyone else has since,” Dittman said. And other places, too.
“We live in a time where we need true heroes,” Klein said. “Lincoln was an amazing man, a true hero.”
Was the presentation helpful to those attending? Absolutely. The feedback from the audience afterwards was extremely complimentary. Fritz’s performance on Lincoln and leadership was outstanding. The audience at the Southwest Conference of Mayors totally enjoyed the presentation. Fritz is an amazing Abraham Lincoln!