Book by Hershey Felder
Music by Leonard Bernstein (and Others)
Directed by Joel Zwick
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“A composer who avoids melody is like a person avoiding breathing just to make life a little more interesting. But the things is, the melody must always be memorable.”
Hershey Felder’s stunning tribute to the life and work of Leonard Bernstein is a work brimming with affection and respect for the “Maestro” currently running at 59E59 Theaters. Mr. Felder bristles with energy as he darts from chair to Steinway grand piano on Francois-Pierre Couture’s impressive set sharing Bernstein’s life and legacy with an impassioned commitment to transparency and authenticity.
“Maestro” shines when Mr. Felder – as Bernstein – shares the provenance of the composer’s craft from the deep roots in Jewish mysticism, in his father’s “niggunim” piercing the apartment nightly after dinner, in the Sturm und Drang of German composers, and in the parallel conflicts in Bernstein’s personal life: his need for a caring father figure; his struggle with his sexual status; his failed marriage to his Felicia, and his desire to be “the conducting God of the universe.”
Mr. Felder intersperses each musical selection with its history, its structure, and its impact on Bernstein’s writing and conducting. His stories of the conductors that influenced Bernstein – with varying degrees of encouragement – are at times deeply moving. Mr. Felder’s reflections on Bernstein’s encounters with Dimitri Mitropoulos, Aaron Copland, Fritz Reiner, Serge Koussevitsky, Artur Rodzinski, and Bruno Walter are filled with ethos, pathos, and a good share of logos. Leonard Bernstein learned from these “giants” and never forgot them.
Mr. Felder plays with passion and an enormous craft. There are times when one wonders if his hands are actually touching the keys. His technique is remarkable and the results of his performance at the keyboard leave a lasting impression. The musical selections include works from the canon of important compositions and, of course, from the works of the Maestro himself. Highlights of the musical selections include works by Brahms, Gershwin, Beethoven, Aaron Copland, Rimsky Korsakov, Schumann, and Gustav Mahler. Included also are selections from Bernstein’s compositions in “West Side Story,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “Candide,” and “Jeremiah.”
Bernstein was always teaching and was proud of his teaching accomplishments: “I got to do something no one before me did, I got to teach music to the entire world on television.” Mr. Felder’s tribute to Bernstein models the Maestro’s commitment to bringing the magic of music to the masses.
Bernstein believed, “Finding that one right note and all those that follow is something that I have done my entire life in order to be a part of the continuum – but being a part of the continuum requires knowing everything that’s come before.” “Maestro” demonstrates how Leonard Bernstein used this mantra to inform his life, his loves, and his iconic career. Kudos to Hershey Felder and director Joel Zwick for creating and presenting a memorable and bittersweet “bio-play” of one of America’s greatest talents.