Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters
Chronofon Productions / Open Eye Figure Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule (newly updated)


Dan Chouinard, Prudence Johnson,
Bradley Greenwald, and Diana Grasselli

Photo by Dan Norman
This Saturday, August 25, 2018, marks the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, one of America's greatest composers (both for classical halls and Broadway) and orchestra conductors. There have been many productions and showcases devoted to Bernstein, who died in 1990 at age 72. Locally, that includes performances of Bernstein's work by the Minnesota Orchestra, a stunning West Side Story at the Guthrie, and Artistry's glowing staged concert production of Candide. All of these gave proof, as if any was needed, of the depth and range of Bernstein's gift for musical composition. Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters, an intimate and lovely show running for only two weeks at the Open Eye Figure Theatre, celebrates Bernstein through a different lens, giving us a portrait of the man as well as the musician.

A quartet of four vocalists, with piano, bass and woodwind backing, offer a sampling of the maestro's work, including his Broadway catalog from 1944's On the Town to 1976's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—his last Broadway show—as well as his classical works and film scores. In between the musical performances, and sometimes woven within them, the four vocalists read letters both to and from Bernstein, going back to his student days at Harvard through every stage of his career and his later years, almost to the time of his death from a heart attack. The letters deal with every facet of this complicated man. As a man of music, we hear of his early love of music and determination to study music rather than the medical career his parents had in mind for him; about his teachers and mentors; the collaborations and creative process from which some of his greatest works emerged; and the progress of his career as he became the youngest, and first American, named to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

Other letters lay bare his personal life. Bernstein was known to his inner circle to be a gay man in an era when that could not be his public face. His was married to his wife Felicia, who knew and accepted the truth about Bernstein, from 1951 until her death in 1978. Other letters showcase Bernstein as a staunch and outspoken liberal, who spoke out early on against Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, for civil rights, and against the war in Vietnam. Finally, some of the letters address Bernstein's sense of identity as a Jew. He expresses unease performing in the mid 1950s in Vienna, acclaimed by an audience in which he imagined sat former Nazi's who ten years earlier would have had him slaughtered in the Holocaust. He performed often in Israel and had a strong belief in the importance of it as a Jewish homeland.

The letters were written to and from an extraordinary array of people: his wife Felicia, his mother, father, sister, brother, his children, and teachers and friends from his school years whose names are not well known. Other correspondents are extremely well known, a group that amounts to a who's who of mid-20th century arts and culture: Aaron Copland, George Abbott, Bette Davis, Jerome Robbins, Lillian Hellman, Lena Horne, Stephen Sondheim, Lauren Bacall, Martha Gellhorn, Miles Davis, and others. Jaqueline Kennedy wrote a letter of gratitude to Bernstein for the performance, under his baton, of the New York Philharmonic at the memorial service for her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy. There too is a courageous statement against tyranny that Bernstein made to the House Un-American Activities Committee, a passionate address delivered at a memorial to John F. Kennedy, and a rousing speech in which he proudly declared "I, too, am a liberal."

While the window into the history that surrounded Bernstein's life and the many facets of his journey, are fascinating and often moving, Dear Lenny holds its head just as high as a musical showcase. Opening with the well known "New York, New York" from On the Town, the singers take turns doing solos, duets and, on occasion, quartets, with a few interludes that feature the instrumentalists. And what singers! Bradley Greenwald, one of the busiest of Twin Cities musical theater performers, with a gloriously rich baritone; Prudence Johnson, a polished singer of standards, folk songs, art songs, and frequent guest on "Prairie Home Companion"; accomplished recording artist and vocal teacher Diana Grasselli; and Dan Chouinard, who doubles on vocals as the show's pianist, and is familiar to listeners of Minnesota Public Radio and viewers of Twin City Public Television. Backed by Greg Hippen on bass and Bruce Thornton, playing clarinet and flute, these six individuals create a musical party, with every song leaving the audience cheering.

All of the performers excel throughout, so I will just mention some highlights, which include Greenwald's "Lonely Town" (On the Town) and "Something's Coming (West Side Story), Grasselli and Johnson's duet on "Ohio" (Wonderful Town), Johnson's sassy "100 Ways to Lose a Man" (Wonderful Town, and Grasselli's flighty rendition of "Glitter and Be Gay (Candide). The four vocalists raised a lump in my throat with Candide's poignant finale "Make Our Garden Grow" and the stirring "Take Care of this House," salvaged from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Chouinard, Hippen and Thornton play short clips of classical works, an excerpt from Bernstein's film score for On the Waterfront, and a five-alarm jazz instrumental version of "I Can Cook, Too" from On the Town. There is a beautifully played and sung section from "Mass," written by Bernstein to celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The artists involved (neither a writer nor a director is credited, though Greenwald compiled and edited the letters) make the perfect choice for the closing number—I won't reveal it, but if you are well acquainted with Bernstein's body of work, you may be able to guess—and top it off with a soaring encore.

The stage for Dear Lenny has the feel of a clubby, old money salon, with comfy chairs for the vocalists when they are not "on," and a sideboard with bottles and glasses for them to refresh. There are no costume credits, though the gents must have talked before going on stage, all spiffy in white dinner jackets and black bow ties. The sound system seemed a bit off on opening night—early on it was difficult to hear the first couple of letters being read, especially over music in the background—but this was remedied as the show progressed.

The concept for this ninety-minute show is simple, with results that are anything but. Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters is a brilliant tribute to a great man. It educates, entertains and inspires. There is talk of a possible return engagement—keep your eyes open and catch it if you can.

Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters, presented by Chronofon Productions, continues through August 27. 2018, at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $26.00 general admission. The current run is sold out, except for a few limited-view seats available for each performance at the door. For tickets and information go to openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.

Music: Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, John LaTouche, Alan Jay Lerner and Stephen Sondheim; Created by: Dan Chouinard, Diana Grasselli, Bradley Greenwald and Prudence Johnson; Musical Arrangements: Dan Chouinard; Letters Compiled and Edited by: Bradley Greenwald; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Projections: Bradley Greenwald.

Cast: Dan Chouinard (vocals, piano), Diana Grasselli (vocals), Bradley Greenwald (vocals, baritone horn), Greg Hippen (bass), Prudence Johnson (vocals), and Bruce Thornton (clarinet, flute).


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