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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 11, 2016

Hershey Felder
Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

Immortality just isn't enough for some people. Take, for example, Leonard Bernstein, or at least the version of him that appears front and center in Hershey Felder's play Maestro, which just opened at 59E59. He may have been a renowned conductor, musician, and composer; he may have shifted the cultural conversation in innumerable ways via his writings and his television appearances; and he may forever be, to many, synonymous with a certain sector of the American musical. But it's his secret, tragic outrage that, after everything else he's done, he's destined to be remembered for the simple, unexceptional notes he wrote for a song called "Somewhere." Who cares if they're correct? They're far, far less than he's capable of, and he'll stop at nothing to make sure everyone knows it.

One suspects that this is precisely the irony Felder intended by making this the key conflict in this 100-minute play, in which Felder is the sole performer. But if it's a sufficiently maddening contradiction, even for those who (like me) aren't the biggest West Side Story fans, it's unfortunately not an especially animating one. Internal struggles of this nature can define content, but it's much harder for them to create it organically—and it's almost impossible if you're predisposed to view the piece in question at least favorably, if not religiously. Are you willing and able to accept the theatrical memoir of a man who sees his biggest failure as attaining success beyond what most of us can conceive? If not, you may have problems.

Ultimately, there's not a ton else going on here to compensate for any leaps you might not be able to make on your own. Bernstein guides us through his rigorously Jewish childhood, complete with a father who disapproves of his son's artistic inclinations ("All a musician does is play at weddings and bar mitzvahs and funerals, and God forbid, he should have to play in the Palm Court of a hotel") and a warmer and more accepting mother, then explores his education and initial forays into composition ("Well, they're crap," Aaron Copland tells him of his efforts. "You've recycled everyone, including me") and conducting (with Serge Koussevitsky of the Boston Symphony), and his triumphant 1943 New York Philharmonic debut. From there his career and life take off, even if his satisfaction doesn't.

Felder does not ignore the darker or more hidden sides of Bernstein's personality, from his sexuality (he was married to, and had children with, a woman, but also, ahem, conducted a number of affairs with men) to his politics (a fundraising event at his home for the Black Panthers legal defense fund does not have the intended impact). If you're interested in some backstage musings and note-by-note analysis, you won't be disappointed (though, sadly, the words "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" are never uttered, nor is that great "lost" musical referenced): There's no shortage of them, from the Jewish "niggun" underpinnings of "Carried Away" to the sexual yearnings beneath "Maria" and the erotic surging that's central to "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde. "He was an anti-Semitic son of a bitch," Bernstein says of its composer, Richard Wagner. "But he knew exactly who he was, and he wasn't ashamed of it."

But by structuring his play so that Bernstein repudiates that message, Felder keeps his underlying themes about the vicissitudes of brilliance from ever completely cohering. We understand the facts of the man's life, but too often not the rationale behind them, and the hints we do get of something deeper are, of themselves, fairly superficial. "Because as composers, that’s what we’re always busy doing: looking for God and love," Bernstein says. "And we have the tools to find them—but the question is, which one of us really knows how to use those tools...?" If Bernstein, and by extension Felder, didn't believe the answer was "Leonard Bernstein," there wouldn't be much of a play. But because that is the answer, there's not much of a journey for him, or us, to make.

For that reason, the play and Felder are better when they abandon the pretense and strip away the theatrical excesses to plunge us deeper into Bernstein's psyche. Felder is excellent in these scenes that depict him losing himself in his art and the creation of creation; he savvily toes the line between outward sanity and inner madness, capturing the full, piercing intensity for which Bernstein was renowned. And under Joel Zwick's stark but effective direction, as sitting and standing on François-Pierre Couture's symphony-mindscape set, beneath Christopher Ash's lights and projections (and Erik Carstensen's ethereal sound design), and wearing a wiry grey wig, Felder has no trouble making him surface-level compelling, so the evening is not hard to watch, and it's frequently enjoyable as far as it goes.

Still, Bernstein was not just a garden-variety genius, and we experience precious little of what made him unique. This might be a flaw with the form, which is probably somewhat immutable. Felder is a virtuosic pianist, and that skill is a critical component of what he does. But unlike with his 2001 Broadway outing (the only other of his plays I've seen), George Gershwin Alone, here he doesn't make the omnipresent grand piano feel like the necessary spiritual extension of its player. Much of what Felder executes comes across as filler, from middling underscoring to iffy emotional revelations (was "A Little Bit in Love" actually written with Koussevitsky in mind?), and this isn't enough to fashion the bonds that might make Bernstein come to life as vibrantly as Gershwin did.

Only once, during a fierce rendition of "Liebestod," do Felder's fingers on the keys seem to merge with Bernstein's soul and create something richer than could exist otherwise: a portrait of demented determination in pursuit of a perfect that to him is unattainable, but to us already looks immaculate. Alas, it's with someone else's work, not his own. Consider it yet another way Maestro stumbles, despite what it gets right. We might be able to sustain our interest and sympathy for a tortured visionary in some circumstances, but it's tough to worry too much about whether Bernstein has found his particular immortality through "second-rate" compositions when, in his own story, he's willing to come across as a supporting player.

Through October 16
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral