Maestro: Leonard Bernstein

May 8, 2012

in Musicals, Plays

Play with Music

Book by Hershey Felder
Music by Leonard Bernstein and Others

Directed by Joel Zwick

ArtsEmerson
Paramout Theatre Mainstage
Boston, MA

With Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein

Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein

A warmly compelling tour of Leonard Bernstein’s career, and heart, with piano and personality wonderfully rendered by the versatile Hershey Felder.

Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) led a charmed and a complex life.

After training as a pianist, composer and conductor, in 1943, at the age of 25, he stunned the world, when, as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he filled in for conductor Bruno Walter and exhibited such talent and gusto that he became a star overnight.

But composition was his first love.

He had early success as a composer of a Broadway musical, On the Town (1944), and somewhat later, of the musicals Candide (1956), and West Side Story (1957), from which he became wildly famous.

He also composed less well-known, serious works, including three symphonies, Jeremiah (1942), The Age of Anxiety (1949) and Kaddish (1963).

In the late 1950s, in his late 30s, he became the director of the New York Philharmonic and established his reputation as one of the world’s leading conductors. He held that position until the late 1960s.

But serious composition was Bernstein’s first love and he was never really able to bring to fruition the sort of accomplishment in that arena to which he aspired. In addition to his symphonies, he did compose song cycles, a mass and miscellaneous other shows and pieces, but he felt that his classical compositions never really hit home.

In the end, Bernstein found himself being remembered mainly as the composer of famous songs from West Side Story and saw, as a result, his attempt to make his mark as a serious composer had been a failure.

Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein’s love life was also complicated.

Married for many years to Felicia Cohn Monteleagre, and the father of three children with her, he took up, in his middle years, with a series of male lovers and ultimately left Felicia to live with one of them. Though that relationship did not endure, and Bernstein returned to his wife, she was not to live for long afterwards. In this regard, Bernstein witnessed the painful implications of his behavior for her and their children.

Leonard Bernstein

I saw Hershey Felder do his George Gershwin show at the American Repertory Theatre twelve years ago and remember it very fondly. There is no disappointment in his reappearance here as Leonard Bernstein.

Adorned with a grey hairpiece (it is so intentionally obvious, but not unappealingly so, it almost seems like a skullcap), he takes the audience, autobiographically, through a tour of Bernstein’s life and works, replete with anecdotes and reflections along the way.

Felder is not only a talented actor, but an excellent pianist, and plays, expertly, renditions of many of Bernstein’s compositions, and those of others, so one gets, truly, a very well executed, dramatized concert.

And he is funny – very funny – doing imitations of Bernstein’s Yiddische father, complete with a totally authentic accent and a symphony of gestures and grimaces.

Felder gives a thorough, but not at all ponderous, depiction of Bernstein’s youthful determination – despite his father’s opposition – to play piano, his initial aspirations as composer, his early training as a conductor, and the following sequence of his remarkable successes.

Felder not only plays the piano, but he sings as well. Much of the time his singing is nuanced and beautiful.

My only serious complaint about this otherwise superb production is that when Felder sings out loudly and attempts to project, it seems – either because of his failure to modulate his voice well enough or because of the failings of the amplified sound system design – as though he were screaming. It is an unfortunate element of a production which is singularly wonderful in so many regards; hopefully, Felder and his staff could address this in some way.

And, though beautifully played, the segment devoted to the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde goes on too long. I did get the importance of the reference to tragic and intense love, but a few bars less would have made the same point more effectively.

Leonard Bernstein.  Photo by Jack Mitchell

Leonard Bernstein
Photo by Jack Mitchell

I felt I came out of the performance with a real and vivid sense of who Bernstein was, and a deep appreciation for Felder’s capacities as a biographer-dramatist-musician.

The performance not only gave a wonderful account of Bernstein’s life and career, but, in a vivid and focal way drove home the poignant dramas. Even blessed with such obvious talent, charisma and success, how could a sense of failure predominate? Felder’s inimitable capacity to convey the grandeur and the disappointment with warmth and humor made this a rich and wonderful evening.

– BADMan

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