Maestro is a wonderful look at the life of a wonderful figure, Leonard Bernstein. Hershey Felder, who wrote the piece and gives a wonderfully engaging performance in it, draws the audience completely in from the first moment with his gorgeous singing voice and tremendous musicality. More of a drama with music than a musical per se, Felder brings us through Bernstein’s composing career–On The Town, Candide, and West Side Story and his works in the classical genre along with some Mahler, some Copland, some Brahms, as we follow the great conductor’s journey through life.
The play begins with a typically Bernsteinian teaching moment as he gives the audience a brief lesson in music genres. This segways very neatly into an introduction to his life as a child in Massachusetts. Felder’s portrayal of Bernstein’s very religious father is throughout the play both hilarious and heartbreaking. Bernstein’s drive and energy become immediately apparent when we learn that, as a young teenager, he quickly began to out-piano his piano teacher, while teaching local kids piano to pay for his own lessons.
Mr. Felder is a gloriously gifted mimic. The portrayals of each new character are remarkably specific, colorful and detailed. We see Bernstein the Harvard quota Jewish student going off to New York to make his way as a composer. Now the fun really begins! By chance, Bernstein finds himself seated next to Aaron Copland at a concert at Carnegie Hall. The two quickly become friends, though Copland trashes Bernstein’s compositions and suggests fatefully that his talents would lend themselves better to conducting. Lucky us!
We get the turning point in his conducting career when a famed guest conductor falls ill (after Bernstein has just spent a raucous night out drinking). The scene between Bernstein and Koussevitsky charms. The resulting resounding success culminates in Papa Bernstein tearfully exclaiming with relief that now his son will be able to pay his bills!
Felder’s portrayal of the maestro in action is nothing short of balletic. Oh and an important piece of advice for any conductor: Watch out for those trouble-making trombone players. (You’ll just have to go see the play!)
Though Mr. Felder’s performance is detailed and utterly charming, two elements are missing. First what I can only describe as the “Boom” that was Bernstein, just isn’t there. The wit, passion, anger and regret are all present. The audience just never gets the big, joyous bombast of the man. The scenes involving his personal life, his marriage and his children are curiously flat. The passion–and there is much of it–is all in the music. SPOILER ALERT: The play ends with a rather odd temper tantrum in which Bernstein complains that his compositions will not be his legacy, like those of Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven and the myriad composers he admired. It feels a bit as if he is turning on an audience that has been with him from the first moment.
The score is a wonderful mix of classical, traditional and Broadway. The projections by Christopher Ash are fascinating and haunting. The set by Francois-Pierre Couture comprised of two chairs and a piano is perfect in its simplicity.
Overall, this is an absolutely mesmerizing piece that, all in all, I would recommend to, well, everyone.