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Score

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fans of different musical genres will forever argue about Leonard Bernstein: Were his achievements more notable in the field of classical music, where he was a world-renowned conductor and composer, or were his contributions to musical theatre (On the Town, West Side Story, and others) more important? Perhaps the reality is really somewhere in between: He was, first and foremost, a musician.

If Score - Jocelyn Clarke's new play adapted from Bernstein's own writings, at the New York Theatre Workshop - is to be believed, that is how Bernstein saw himself: The servant of a greater art, a communicator of that which is easily felt but more difficultly expressed, a man for whom the creation or performance of music contained all the most basic truths of life. Or, put in the simplest possible terms, "In the beginning was the note and the note was with God."

Bernstein, enacted here with impressive acuity by Tom Nelis, makes that statement a number of times over the course of the show, which is structured as a lecture he's giving about himself, his work, and the mystical, magical nature of music in general. As is perhaps expected, we get to know a great deal about the man himself during his speech, but that's never Clarke's primary goal: The facts about Bernstein, even from his own mouth or pen, are easily found, as evidenced by the multiple sources he's drawn upon in assembling Score. He's more interested in revealing Bernstein's innermost artistic spirit and examining, as completely as possible, the depth of artistic inspiration.

It's a tall order, but one that's achieved by the end of this intense 90-minute show, owing to a thorough synthesis of theatrical elements: Neil Patel's dreamscape-like set, which is lined with mirrors and strewn with music stands, sets the location within Bernstein's mind before a word is spoken; Christopher Akerlind's lighting illuminates interior thoughts and reveals Bernstein as an inescapably public man caught in the harsh glow of the (literal) footlights; Darron L. West's complex soundscape melds vocal amplification, sound effects, and snatches of classical music into a rich aural texture that solidly defines both the man and the show itself.

Everything is conducted almost ideally by director Anne Bogart, who brings a real creative urgency and continuity to the proceedings. She allows the story to progress as fluidly as Nelis's hands when Bernstein is conducting one of his orchestras, while she carefully maintains a dark unpredictability about most of what happens. Exactly how transitions between scenes and trains of thought will occur and where Bernstein will lead us next are always surprising. Bogart falters only occasionally (as she did with last year's Death and the Ploughman), in giving Nelis repetitive gestures and bits of business that draw attention to themselves more than they elucidate character.

But given the strength of Nelis's performance, this is seldom a significant liability. Nelis captures Bernstein so fully - in voice, manner, and spirit - that you never have cause to doubt a word, a gesture, a theory, or an emotion; everything seems to progress naturally from his innermost musical being. The production is never more captivating than in a wordless (though hardly silent) sequence in which Bernstein experiences a dozen conflicting emotions while conducting a composition using only the cigarette he holds loosely in his mouth.

That, like Nelis's constant hacking, is a less than subtle reminder of how Bernstein himself would eventually be felled, and the use of this device is a bit heavy-handed in a work that otherwise thrives on minute variations of movement and mood. Yet whether highlighting Bernstein's health problems in this manner, explaining the often uncertain process of composition, embarking on impassioned reminiscences about Serge Koussevitzky or Aaron Copland, or peeling away the layers of compositions by Beethoven or Mahler, Nelis is never less than completely convincing.

We're under his spell long before the play ends, though it's only in the final moments that Clarke's true message is revealed: Music, like theatre, is a joint art, one that's created only in the presence of a performer and his audience. We allow Bernstein to fulfill his fantasies, realize his fullest potential; he wants the same for us, with the notion that, in the end, we'll all be richer for it. Even if few fulfill their dreams or unlock their talent the way he did, he's almost certainly correct; still, we're unquestionably richer for Score, Bernstein, and the fine collaboration of Clarke, Bogart, and Nelis that brought them so satisfyingly together.

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New York Theatre Workshop
Score
Through June 5
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge