Music & Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and others
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Joel Zwick
At the Royal George Theatre, Chicago
Riveting theatrical event deftly depicts the passion and contradictions of Leonard Bernstein
He’s back! Yes, the amazing pianist, playwright, composer, actor, teacher, and producer – Hershey Felder is back in Chicago. Having penned and performed the “Composers Sonata” – George Gershwin Alone; Monsieur Chopin; Beethoven, As I Knew Him, we never get enough of this man’s talents as a storyteller, teacher and performer. He is here with his new show – Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein now playing at the Royal George Theatre.
Maestro is an amazing theatrical tour de force that finds Hershey Felder once more capturing the essence of his subject – this time his passion is for Leonard Bernstein(1918 -1990). Felder nimbly uses his prodigious piano skills, his stellar accents and his deep understanding of Leonard Bernstein – the artist and Bernstein the man. In a riveting 105 minute one man show, Felder outlines the life story of the conductor/composer/teacher from his Jewish roots to his love for music and for his need to communicate and share his passion for music with the world.
Felder is memorizing as Bernstein as he takes on his personality by deftly showing, through music and anecdotes, the influences and motivations of a true lover of music. We hear piano excerpts from Jewish prays and others that shaped Bernstein’s interests in the power of music. Felder demonstrates how Bernstein and many other composers used music in their search for God. He makes the case that all art is an attempt to find God and that the beauty of a melody is the essence of God working through an artist. Felder effectively demonstrates both his passion and Bernstein’s for music as both share a deep and most effective zeal for explaining the technical aspects of music so that a laymen can understand and appreciate the majesty of the art form.
Fleder weaves Bernstein’s life story from the early days that found him desirous to be the “next Gershwin – the next great American composer.” But life sometimes has other plans and Felder details Bernstein’s accomplishments. Amazingly, we learn that despite emerging as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic and attaining worldwide fame, Bernstein felt incomplete since he never felt accepted as a “serious composer” by critics or fellow composers. From the day that Aaron Copeland told him his compositions were “too derivative” and advised him to take up conducting, Bernstein did so but always strove to compose the next major work. He never felt that his music for West Side Story would ultimately define him.
What Felder’s intoxicating show most effectively accomplishes is a deep character analysis of Leonard Bernstein the man and artist. We get to feel his endless need for love and how his desire for sex with men and his love for his wife nearly destroyed him. We experience how Bernstein loved everything and how his appetite for passion allowed him to teach music to the world through conducting and teaching. The TV lecture series he narrated allowed him to introduce classical music to a wide audience.
With Maestro and his other “Composer Sonatas,” Hershey Felder takes up the mantle of both entertainer and teacher. He instructs audiences about music and the personalities who create it. Hershey Felder combines theatricality and honesty with his passion for music and storytelling that results in a riveting theatrical event. I’ve not seen a person who can do what Felder does – act, play music, sing, and present an compelling biodrama that reaches the essence of what it is to be an artist. Felder is a special talent whose fervor for music allows him to communicate the passion of an artist that becomes insatiable to audiences. Felder commands an audience like no other. Maestro is a fabulous theatrical experience that needs to be seen to fully appreciate. Take anyone you know who loves music and who desires to create music to see Maestro, they’ll appreciate it for life.
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Will Fink’s Thoughts:
I think that the thing most remarkable about this piece is the totality of it. It is a piece of theatre, yes; it is also a piano recital; and a musical review; and a biography; and a lecture on musicology. Though to have so many things going on at once might seemingly spell disaster, Hershey Felder blends it all together so well one really doesn’t notice – unless one is thinking about it. And this piece is not purely a mission to inform. As Patrick Stewart once said, the first duty of theatre is to entertain; informing the audience is a wonderful byproduct, but, in the medium of theatre, it is impossible to inform without first entertaining. This is something Felder knows well, and deftly displays in Maestro. He captures perfectly Berstein’s pathos and self-doubt, his unfulfilled desire to be a great composer like the men he idolized, the men who made him first want to become musical. Felder slips – as Bernstein would himself – between teacher, conductor, composer, and fan seamlessly. His simple insights stick with you. Describing one of Wagner’s compositions in Tristan und Isolde, Bernstein describes how Wagner was the first composer to incorporate sexual tension musically by creating a piece that moves constantly forward and begs for resolve. The brilliance of that leaves an impression on Berstein – and left one on me, too. Felder also takes care to tell us the story of the man’s life. He starts in youth and progresses through his life, honestly and compellingly, bringing important characters – the men that shaped Leonard Bernstein, the people who affected his life most profoundly – into the mix. This is not a college professor lecturing on a subject; this is not one man talking at you for an hour and forty-five minutes. And yet it is, and what’s more it leaves you with that wonderful feeling of tangible knowledge gained, of walking out of the space with these things that you can hold on to, that you have learned and enjoyed learning. This does what so much great theatre aims to do: entertain, first and foremost, but inform gaily, as well.
Date Reviewed: November 9, 2011
For full show information, check out the Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein page at Theatre In Chicago.
At the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call (312) 988-9000, tickets $55, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 & 5 pm, running time is 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission, through December 30, 2011