by Samuel L. Leiter
Hershey Felder, who practically has made a career of creating one-man shows about musical geniuses (Gershwin, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Berlin), has done it again with Maestro, his engrossing hour and 45-minute biodrama about the great composer-conductor-pianist-lecturer-teacher-author-librettist Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Felder, an actor-composer-pianist-singer-teacher-playwright (a mini-Bernstein one might say), is one of the few theatrical artists capable of doing a show like this, now in New York after showings in California and Chicago.
Putting a life so densely packed with creative activity into such a brief span is sure to make Bernstein addicts squirm at what’s been left out or to grimace at how different from Bernstein Felder looks, sounds, and behaves (one barely-smoked cigarette at the start and that’s it); even then, they may feel, with many others, the need to stand and yell “Bravo” when the show draws to its close and the full impact of Felder’s tour de force presentation is absorbed.
As elegantly directed by Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), who also staged two earlier Felder shows, Bernstein is set on a stage (designed by François-Pierre Couture) dominated by a grand piano, a large canvas draped across the rear wall that serves as a screen for projections (by Christopher Ash, who also did the lighting), and equipment suggesting we’re in a TV studio. Felder, wearing a gray jacket, black slacks, and black mock turtleneck—not to mention an un-Bernstein-like gray hairdo (or is it a wig?)—takes us on an anecdotal journey through the highlights of the musician’s life.
He impersonates important figures from that life, beginning with Leonard’s pious Russian-Jewish father, Sam—a prosperous beauty supplies salesman and Talmudic student who did everything he could to discourage his boy from following a musical career, although the Jewish influence on Bernstein’s music was great.
There are also the towering conductors—the Greek Dimitri Mitropoulis, the Russian Serge Koussevitsky, and the Hungarian Fritz Reiner—who helped Bernstein become America’s first internationally renowned conductor. Felder does Sam’s Yiddish accent and expressions spot on, getting comic mileage from them; the others not so much. Yiddish intonations sometimes bleed into Lenny’s speech as well, jarring a bit with the more professorial elocution we hear on the many available videos of him.
Despite the considerable amount of personal detail provided, including both his marriage to Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre as well as his homosexual affairs (which some may think deserve greater attention), huge amounts are necessarily omitted. In addition to his bio, our hero also lectures brilliantly—while displaying his pianistic virtuosity—on the technical intricacies of his own compositions and those of Copland, Beethoven, Grieg, Mahler, and Wagner (Schoenberg doesn’t make the cut). Aficionados will recognize Bernstein’s more serious compositions while others will be happy to hear his lecture-demos on West Side Story’s “Somewhere” and “”Maria,” which Felder sings as he plays.
A man of many contradictions, Bernstein struggled to come to terms with his ambivalent sexuality; with his Judaism (he wrote a controversial Catholic Mass, although it gets short shrift here); with his classical versus Broadway inclinations (we get one selection each from On the Town and Candide, in addition to West Side Story, which he decided was “silly juvenilia”); with whether he was primarily a composer or a conductor; with his disappointment at his creative output; and with his political liberalism, in particular the infamous party held at his apartment for the Black Panthers, which inspired Tom Wolfe’s putdown phrase, “radical chic” (those words and Wolfe’s name are avoided, though).
Like its inspiration, Bernstein isn’t perfect. Given Bernstein’s famous over-the-top conducting style, it’s surprising that—even with a brief moment of Felder-Bernstein conducting a prerecorded orchestra—all we see of the late maestro’s electric conducting theatricality are a few seconds of video; Felder himself seems more comfortable at the keyboard than on the podium.
Still, seen in the right spirit, this is a valuable work of musical theatre that manages to teach at the same time that it entertains. Leonard Bernstein is someone you should want to know more about. And Hershey Felder’s the man to bring him to you.
59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 16
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).