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Theatre Review (LA): Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein by Hershey Felder at the Geffen Playhouse

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Hershey Felder has resurrected the bio play, at least when it comes to musicians. So far he has portrayed Gershwin (George Gershwin Alone), Chopin (Monsieur Chopin), and Beethoven (Beethoven as I Knew Him), in which he discussed Beethoven through a neighbor, Gerhard von Breuning. This actor, impersonator, musician, composer, and dilettante has made a career of praising those who really need no praise. In fact the main reason his “plays” are so enjoyable is the fact that he is a superb musician who plays one hell of a piano. It seems a natural progression to next try to portray another American who has various titles after his name: musician, composer, lecturer, television star, and Maestro of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein.

Felder begins his piece with tapes recovered from Bernstein’s various television performances in which he explains music and its composition and illustrates what exactly a conductor does and what he must know in order to raise a baton. I think this was a brilliant way to begin the program because Felder, in his own way, is following in Bernstein’s footsteps, introducing us to aspects of music through entertainment and demonstration.

 


Photo: Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” at the Geffen Playhouse. Credit: Michael Lamont / Geffen Playhouse.

 

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein seems different than Felder’s previous endeavors in that it spends an inordinate amount of time on Bernstein’s personal life rather than his music. The primary focus of the piece is Bernstein’s relationship with his stern Jewish father, who seemed only interested in how much money his son could make—excusable when one realizes that Bernstein senior came from an older culture and was concerned about his son fitting in and making a success of himself. Felder then introduces us to various mentors of Bernstein who acted much like father substitutes. Whether or not there was anything physical between them remains unclear but perhaps only because no one can be sure of such things.

What is detailed is Bernstein’s loving relationship with his wife, whom he left briefly for a homosexual relationship that lasted only one year. Bernstein had told her that the man in question was “his best friend.” Earlier in the piece he had said his wife was his best friend and this cruel statement seems to have been his biggest personal regret.

Musically he regretted that he would mostly be remembered for West Side Story. Felder doesn’t help this much and spends his longest musical section playing Gershwin. I really enjoyed the evening although it seemed less satisfying than his previous ventures, perhaps because there was so little music. Word has it that Felder has a musical in the works, which I eagerly anticipate. Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein plays at the Geffen Playhouse until Dec. 12th.

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