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Theater review: Hershey Felder does Leonard Bernstein

November 11, 2010 |  3:36 pm

Hershey
In the first few moments of Hershey Felder’s one-man show, “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” we get an exuberant rendition of “Somewhere” sung at the piano and a happy helping of Borscht Belt humor, along with a little hint of the existential. There were many sides to Bernstein the composer, pianist, educator, breaker of barriers (and hearts) and role model.

Deep down Bernstein was tormented by unanswerable questions, and these Felder's Bernstein  asks early and often. Who am I?  Why am I here?  What does anything mean?  Is love all you need?  Am I a great composer?  Can I be me? 

The action is said to take place on Sunday, Oct. 14, 1990, in Leonard Bernstein’s last moments, according to the Geffen Playhouse program, although the set is that of a '60s television studio. Characteristically, Bernstein’s last words were a question. “What is this?” And members of the audience may very well be left asking themselves just that question after an intriguing and impressive if slightly surreal 100-minute careening through the greatest career in American music.

Felder is, in many ways, a Bernstein follower, a bringer of classical music to a large public. He has tackled Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin in previous solo musical ventures, and a theme emerges early on in “Maestro.” Though an outsider -– born to working-class Jewish Ukrainian émigré parents in Boston -– Bernstein saw himself as part of a continuum. Felder demonstrates by revealing how few degrees of separation there were between Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F and Bernstein’s “Carried Away” from his 1944 musical “On the Town.”

Yes, Felder gets carried away. He’s not Lenny exactly. He doesn’t dare sing with Bernstein’s croak. There are no cigarettes. Although Felder has a field day with foreign accents, especially Jewish ones, he doesn’t attempt Bernstein’s upper-crust Harvard vowels.

Written by Felder and directed by his longtime collaborator Joel Zwick, “Maestro” is plenty slick but also expert. He wears a tight Bernstein suit of the '60s (sets and costumes are by Francois-Pierre Couture), and Felder is at home at the piano belting out Bernstein in over-the-top Broadway style (whether Broadway tunes or not). He did not particularly remind me of Bernstein explaining music or performing. Bernstein was more formal, more decorous even when he got very much carried away. But the subject matter remained riveting.

Felder can be funny, and gets big laughs. Stories of about Bernstein’s childhood and his early career are embellished to make them a little more entertaining, to double underscore the punch line. Bernstein usually settled for being amusing, and even then wanted amusement to be instructive.

Felder also tugs at the heartstrings. He tenderly sang “A Little Bit in Love” while we saw pictures of Bernstein blissfully walking hand-in-hand with his mentor, Boston Symphony Music director Serge Koussevitzky. I thought Felder played the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” a little too charmingly, but in fact he synchronized the performance to a video of Bernstein playing, and that was stunning.

Trying to uncover what made Bernstein Bernstein is, of course, an impossible task for such a show (an obsession with psychotherapy didn’t necessarily answer Bernstein’s questions for himself). “Love is the thing I have been looking for my entire life,” Felder’s Bernstein concludes after a rocky ride through the shoals of bisexuality.

Missing are Bernstein’s politics, about which a whole show could -– and should –- be made.  And at times Bernstein’s narcissism comes to seem like a mirror for Felder’s own. Bernstein’s arrogance was of a more elusive and magically forgivable kind.

But it takes a certain chutzpah and considerable talent to impersonate this uniquely charismatic and supremely talented Bernstein. And Lenny liked nothing better than chutzpah combined with talent. Somewhere, he is looking down on this show no doubt bitching like crazy yet deeply touched that we still, 20 years after his death, care.

-- Mark Swed

“Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 12. $35 to $85. www.geffenplayhouse.com or (310) 208-5454. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Photo: Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” at the Geffen Playhouse. Credit: Michael Lamont / Geffen Playhouse.

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