Loath as I am to stand in applause (seemingly the norm at every performance from kindergarten through Broadway), Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein had me up and flapping. Last evening’s nearly two-hour, one-man show also deserved the overused and usually hyperbolic tour de force.
Note that this is an ArtsEmerson show at the Paramount and runs through May 20th. Hie thee. Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein is far better done and more memorable than any play you’re likely to see this year or any musical with women wearing spangles and rhinestones.
At its most basic, this show is a chronological biography. Badly written and performed, that could surely be tedious. This is riveting. No one coughed or rustled papers.
Note too that Felder is creating a career out of these musician shows. Following Bernstein, he comes on with black hair starting May 30th as George Gershwin. Previously, he’s been Chopin and Beethoven. He takes his shows on the road and somehow maintains his energy with one or two a day and transitioning among characters and musical repertoires.
Felder plays and sings, the former stronger than the latter, but certainly in the role of conductor/composer, his voice is fine and does not distract from the story. He plays enough Beethoven, Wagner. Copeland, a few others, plus parts of his own work. Intriguing is his early efforts and parts of his major works. Yet an apt leitmotif that does a fair job of tying his story together are a couple of songs from West Side Story, Somewhere and Maria.
Key tensions in the tale start with his unapproving, gruff father. Over his objections, Bernstein pays for his own piano lessons, studies with several leading mentors, and makes a seeming success of it all. Underlying are problems most of us who saw him conduct or perform and explain on TV forgot or did not know. There’s his finding, marrying and having three children with Felicia, his professed great love. Meanwhile, he longed to be known as a composer, to be among the greats in this country and historically. Along the way, he had homosexual affairs, including one for whom he left his wife for a few years. He returned and nursed her as she died of cancer.
A long, pivotal scene near the end has him beseeching the audience to sing any of his arias or recall even a few bars of his serious work. He knows no one can and in the end seems to accept begrudgingly that West Side Story will be his piece by which people recall him.
The show carries the biography from childhood to death surprisingly smoothly. Felder stays in character, or characters, as he voices the father, mother, various mentors and more. This artificial cast of characters allows for development and aging and struggles one-man shows tend to lack.
He also manages to deal candidly with issues, such as the gay affairs, without becoming salacious or silly.
The show had no pauses, no awkward or forced segments, and nothing contrived. It is brilliantly written. The steady rhythm of intense performance performance and then casual conversation provided great focus and framed each example of development memorably. Felder was more than capable at the piano and the musical selections illustrated both how Bernstein progressed, and regressed, professionally, and supported the thesis of a tormented would-be great composer.
Felder’s view seems to be, as the program reads, that it is too soon after Bernstein’s life and death to judge his oeuvre. His superb version of the life does not judge either. I left the Paramount with a much fuller and more personal sense of the musician and person. Again, this show brought me to my feet.
Tags: harrumpher, Felder, Bernstein, Maestro, ArtsEmerson