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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Now he's morphed into one of the most complex, charismatic and diverse of them all Leonard Bernstein. While he actually looked a lot like George Gershwin, the only one of his musical biographies I've seen, he's clearly perfected his unique style of championing musical legends even when he neither looks or sounds like them, as is the case with Maestro.
The outward differences between Bernstein and Felder are evident even as audiences take their seats at 59E59's Theater A (their main stage). On the back of Francois-Pierre Coutoure's very apt and clever set design feature projected video from Bernstein's famous Omnibus TV series. Here we see the handsome Bernstein teaching huge audiences about composing and conducting classic music. Even with the distracting noise of people still talking, Bernstein's charisma seems to ooze off the screen. Felder steps into the shoes of the on-screen "Mr. Music" with a dramatically , measured walk down the theater's center aisle. Unless you expect a Hershey to become a replica of Lenny, what follows will be an enjoyable narrative with some wonderful music.
Despite not looking a bit like Bernstein, Maestro more than any of these previous part play-part concert presentations, fits Felder's persona. That's because Felder's career mirrors Bernstein's own operatic ambitions to be appreciated as a composer, world-renowned conductor and musical theater game changer.
Though Bernstein's trajectory from his Boston Boyhood in 19A8 to his death in 1990 is told in the first person, Felder's not looking or even sounding like Bernstein doesn't really matter here since he frequently segues into other key figures in his subject's eventful and very complex life. And he handles the singing and stage presence required to do so competently, even though he, like Bernstein —per the above quoted song from ON THE Town — at times gets "carried away."
As both Felder's singing and acting have improved considerably in the fifteen years since I saw his Gershwin solo, so has the overall staging. The already mentioned suitably attractive scenic design is enriched courtesy of Christopher Ash's projected images of the central characters who crop up in Bernstein's reminiscences. Felder's long-time collaborator and director Joel Zwick has helped him to inhabit some of these other characters, especially his father, with considerable humor and to move easily back to the piano to play the musical selections that are Maestro's real backbone.
Of course, packing the story of a man as complex and diversely accomplished as Leonard Bernstein, isn't easy to fit into an hour and forty-five minutes that also has to include a generous sampling of music. Thus Felder's script, though covering all the highlights, is hardly a definitive biography. However, for the predominantly of a certain age audience (at least at the performance I attended) it serves as an enjoyable memory trigger for music lovers who were around to actually saw Bernstein conduct and were in the audience at the original productions. As someone who was in Lenox during Bernstein's final season at Tanglewood, the reference to his last concert was particularly moving.
Felder tells his story in an orderly chronological fashion, starting with Bernstein's growing up in an orthodox Jewish family in Boston headed by a Talmud-obsessed father who wanted his son to be "somebody" and not some grubby klezmer musician playing weddings and bar mitzvahs for a living." (I'm unfamiliar with Mr. Felder's family details, but he too had a Jewish immigrant background, though his life began in Canada). Bernstein's rise to fame is engagingly recounted and includes his refusal to become more acceptable by changing his name and his father's amusing response to reporters after his son's career-making first conducting gig at the New York Pilharmonic: "How was I supposed to know that he was 'Leonard Bernstein?
The vast amount of material covered may seem to make some of the more psychological nuances of Bernstein's life seem sketchy. Still, his active homosexual life, both before and during his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre, isn't overlooked. Neither is his and her political activism. Whatever the shortcomings of the script and Hershey being a truly compelling Lenny, Felder deserves credit for giving equal time to the compositions that Bernstein was so eager to have appreciated as much as much as his more popular theater scores. What's more, he renders them pretty fully, rather than in frustratingly brief snatches.
Felder proves himself to be an accomplished pianist whether playing excerpts from West Side Story, the works of great composers he admired or his own lesser known works. His most powerful scene at the piano comes close to the end when he plays Wagner's Liebestod"" from Tristan and Isolde after explaining why he plays and admires the anti-Semitic composer ("he didn't pretend that he was something he wasn't" which Bernstein felt he'd have to do if he wanted to leave behind at least one serious great musical composition). Felder's playing reaches a stunning climax with Bernstein conducting the orchestra on the screen.
One almost wishes Maestro could have ended there, instead of with Bernstein-cum-Bernstein's angry rant about never achieving that goal. Thus he introduces his final musical excerpt, "Maria" from West Side Story , as "his punishment." There sure are lots of young musical theater composers out there who would embrace such a punishment.""
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Written and performed by Hershey Felder
Music by Leonard Bernstein and others
Directed by Joel Zwick
Scenic Design: Francoise Pierre Couture
Lighting and Projection Design: Christopher Ash
Sound Design: Erik Carstensen
Stage Manager: Rebecca Peters
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
59E59 Theaters 59 E. 59th St. 212-279-4200 59e59.org
From 8/31/16; opening 9/11/16; cosing 10/23/16
Reviewed b y Elyse Sommer on September 14, 2016
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