Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
August 5, 2011
First he was Louis. Then Leonard or Lenny. To his Eastern European mentors, Lenushka . Composer, conductor, pianist, educator, author, musical ambassador, globetrotter, bon vivant and self-aggrandizer par excellence. A very Jewish man who married a non-Jew and adored the music of Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite. Intensely devoted to his wife, whom he betrayed with an endless parade of men. He loved his family, but spent most of his time on the road. He was a consummate conductor, but he wanted to be remembered as a classical composer, even though he’s best known for his musical theater creation, “West Side Story.”
In short, Leonard Bernstein was a man of complexity and contradiction. And enormous ego, intelligence and talent. It’s hard to contain him in one evening of theater, let alone 100 minutes of stage time.
He was larger than life, and his legacy is yet to be determined. That’s kind of the point of “Hershey Felder in Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein.” But there are as many dissonances in the play as there were in Bernstein’s life and his music.
Set in what looks like a 1960s recording studio, reminiscent of the famous televised educational concerts he conducted, the piece actually takes place shortly before Bernstein’s death, which occurred in 1990.
The enigmatic backdrop looks like burned or ripped parchment or sheet music, and every face projected on it is distorted by creases and wrinkles. By the time the drop reaches and cascades over the lip of the stage, it has strangely morphed into draped fabric. The lighting is also inconsistent, at times so harshly angled at Felder that his eyes have that dark-rimmed raccoon appearance.
The evening careens wildly from family memory to didactic lecture, the impassioned ramblings of an unfulfilled narcissist, tormented by regret, guilt, and despair over whether he made enough of a mark.
As written by Felder and directed by Joel Zwick , the piece doesn’t seem to know if it’s a memoir, an apologia, an exposé or a lesson in writing, conducting and appreciating music. Multiple themes course through it: Bernstein’s quest for honesty, legacy, universality, spirituality, true love and his father’s approval. But none of these is deeply examined.
Felder, who’s created similar evenings on Chopin, Gershwin and Beethoven, is doing just what Bernstein did: bringing classical music to the masses. He’s a marvelous storyteller, a great mimic and kibitzer. He captures all the arrogance, self-indulgence and verbal extravagance of Bernstein, but not his legendary charm and charisma. Felder’s piano playing is excellent, but his singing is less satisfying, straining at Bernstein’s wide-ranging melodies.
Leonard Bernstein’s place in American musical history is yet to be established. “Maestro” gives us a tiny taste of the man, his musings and his music, but in the context of Felder’s own dramatic oeuvre, it’s no Chopin.
“Hershey Felder in Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” runs through August 28 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park.
©2011 PAT LAUNER