The Art of Leonard Bernstein

Music & Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein & others
Book by & Starring Hershey Felder
Directed by Joel Zwick
Presented by Asolo Repertory Company
FSU Center for the Performing Arts, Mertz Theatre
555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota, 841-351-8000, June 8-12,'11

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Hershey Felder, impersonating Leonard Bernstein in his later years, spends most of his time at and in front of a center Steinway when Bernstein tells of or demonstrates his professional life. Off to one side, he recounts his personal life. At first, the latter predominates as he strives, for his father's approval, "to be a Mensch."  A well-off one, of course.  Only toward the end, does he go into his conflicts over his sexuality. Professionally, he triumphs most as a conductor (hence the title) and, especially through media, a great teacher. The professional struggle that affects the personal, which Hershey Felder emphasizes much as he did previously for Asolo in his depiction of Gershwin Alone, is Bernstein's unrealized longing to be recognized as a master composer.
 Maestro strikes me as still a work in progress. (It replaced at short notice a Beethoven piece for which Felder has been noted. I suspect Bernstein's story gave Asolo Rep a way to link American icons for season's end presentations that depart from Rep casting and formula.) There is too much in the first 30+ minutes about the son-father relationship and their Jewishness.  His account of his schooling and the influence exerted by classical composers, especially Beethoven but including Gershwin, leads to the theme of his desire to be the next great American one. There's a less than crystal clear explanation of "finding the right note" as something Bernstein yearned for and sought all his life. What does come through is how much he was helped (e.g., by Copland, Koussevitsky, Mitropoulous, Fritz Reiner) and inspired from his days at Harvard (although his profs aren't mentioned) through to becoming Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, a frequent conductor in Vienna and for other important venues internationally including Japan, a television superstar leading Omnibus lessons and young peoples' concerts.
Bernstein may have moaned about his symphonic and operatic compositions being unappreciated, but Felder plays down his great successes in ballet and musical theatre. His West Side Story music amounts here mainly to being a well deserved tribute to his wife Felicia with the song "Maria" which struck that right note. Felder does such a fine job of playing snippets of Bernstein's work and others' that I wished he had performed more of the serious music the composer felt was not appreciated. Selections from Candide, The Age of Anxiety, and his Third Symphony would have been better than  some of the singing and talk, especially about Felicia's opinions. A little of his Mass could  have illustrated his multicultural (including Jewish) expression.
Francois-Pierre Couture provides excellent blended Scenic, Lighting, and Projection Design, with contributions to the latter by Andrew Wilder. Dominant in the background are films, TV clips, and photos of Bernstein speaking and performing. One stunning scene has Bernstein projected playing piano while Felder mirrors him in performance, even with the same outfit and hair style. Margaret Hartmann directed Lighting; Erik Carstensen, Sound. Director Joel Zwick has been mostly successful in assuring the show doesn't get static. He sees to it that Hershey Felder brings out Bernstein's talent. But they need to better explain the man as he did the music he made, played, led, presented.
Production Stage Manager for the 105 minute one-act is Nate Genung. Production Manager and Tech Director is Matt Marsden.

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