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Chicago by John Olson

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
Royal George Theater

Maestro
Hershey Felder
Leonard Bernstein's first Broadway musical, On the Town, has a song titled "Lucky to be Me," and it might well have been a theme song for this incredibly gifted, insanely successful, and infinitely lucky composer and conductor. In Hershey Felder's new biographical one-man play, we see how young Leonard Bernstein—after being magnetically drawn to a relative's piano at a very early age—determinedly overcame the objections of his conservatively minded father who was afraid the boy would end up playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs for pittances. It seem this was the only major headwind he had to overcome in advancing toward his destiny of becoming one of a handful of top 20th century figures in American music, though the young Leonard found a way to study music without his father's support. From then on, events conspired to propel him into superstardom.

Born and raised in the Boston area, Bernstein was schooled at the Boston Latin School and Harvard, where his friendship with composer Aaron Copland led to his acceptance to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music to study conducting under Fritz Reiner. He later won a spot in the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Institute and the tutelage of Serge Koussevitzky. He landed a job as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic which led, in true Hollywood fashion, to a chance to fill in for the ailing guest conductor Bruno Walter and conduct the orchestra in a nationally broadcast concert. He was an immediate sensation and eventually became America's best known conductor—a true celebrity, thanks to his many appearances on the new medium of television in the 1950s and '60s.

It wasn't the right kind of success for Bernstein, though, and that's the point of this very moving and powerful play written and performed by Felder. Bernstein's goal was to assume the mantle of America's greatest composer following the death of George Gershwin in 1937. Though his work for musical theater, particularly the score for West Side Story, became some of the most popular music of the century—and though TV made him arguably the most recognized and revered conductor in world history—he wanted to be known for serious orchestral composition. In an exceptionally powerful monologue performed by Felder with great force at the play's conclusion, Bernstein rants about the fact that none of the motifs from his serious works has the recognition of, say, the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I'll bet the first four notes of Bernstein's "New York, New York" from the musical On the Town might rival the Fifth's famous motif, but that wasn't enough for Bernstein.

The other half of Bernstein's story, which Felder attends to after establishing the trajectory of his Bernstein's musical career, was in his romantic life, where he dealt with the conflicts of a homosexual orientation while married to Felicia Montealegre. Maestro covers this directly, but not salaciously, focusing mostly on Bernstein's decision to leave Felicia for a young man, then returning to care for her during the last days of her life before her death in 1978 from lung cancer. Felder shows us Bernstein's deep remorse for his abandonment of his wife and suggests a remorse from which Bernstein never recovered. Her death is essentially the end of Maestro's story—though Bernstein continued to conduct and record until his death in 1990, his compositions in that period, like those before it, failed to achieve the serious recognition he so desired. His feelings of failure on both a professional and personal level make this play a tragedy—one even more touching to audiences who have memories of the man as celebrity and revere his music.

Felder's Bernstein is his most fully realized "character" to date, both on textual and performance bases. Again under Joel Zwick's direction, Felder delivers his most nuanced and understated performance yet. He captures the regality of Bernstein's demeanor without attempting to mimic his voice. In fact, the production acknowledges and accepts our memories of the real Bernstein through projected films of him. The man's charisma, love of music and ego are evident, as is his genuine pain and rage over the major disappointments of his life. As in Felder's earlier composer biographies of Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven, he has some fun with eastern European accents while creating vivid secondary characters of the European conductors who were so influential in Bernstein's early career.

Though Felder has increased the attention given to Bernstein's musicals over what was included in the first draft he previewed for audiences at the Ravinia Festival last year, he could still tell us more about how Bernstein felt about those projects: why he pursued them and why he seemed to diminish their importance. Candide, after all, is no small effort—nor is West Side Story, and On the Town was a pioneer in integrating dance into musical theater storytelling while contributing its "Three Dances" to the repertoire of symphonic pops concerts. Time constraints might have prohibited it, as Maestro covers a lot of ground in its hour and 45 minutes.

Maestro includes somewhat less of Felder's pianistics than his earlier pieces (though he still shows off his skills as a concert pianist) and a few vocals—notably "Somewhere" from West Side Story and "A Little Bit in Love" from Wonderful Town, which Felder delivers quite capably and surely. And, as in the earlier pieces, there's a good dose of music theory and history as well (did you know "Maria" is such a haunting song because it begins with a diminished 4th?). The main reason to see this piece, though, is for the story. How one man can achieve unimaginable success and still die feeling unfulfilled and lonely raises basic existential questions.

Maestro will play the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., Chicago through December 30, 2011. Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 312-988-900 online through www.ticketmaster.com and at all Ticketmaster outlets.


Photo: Michael Lamont

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-- John Olson



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