Quick, what do "On the Town," "On the Waterfront" and "West Side Story" have in common?
Give up? All three were propelled musically by the genius of Leonard Bernstein, the latest subject in Hershey Felder's series of tributes on the stage of the Laguna Playhouse, this one titled "Maestro."
In his fifth visit to Laguna in a little over a year, Felder changes tempo a bit and may sacrifice some attention as a result. If you're not Jewish and not conversant with musical terminology, "Maestro" may not be as accessible as his previous one-man shows on Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven.
While Felder offers some rare personal glimpses into the life and career of the master composer and conductor, the show slogs a bit in the early going with an overabundance of attention on Bernstein's childhood, his father's strict Hebrew faith and the finer points of musical composition.
And, while "On the Town" and "On the Waterfront" are pretty much glossed over, Felder brings Bernstein's work on "West Side Story" triumphantly center stage, sharing with his audience the producers' original plans to have the show center on a battle between young Jews and Catholics.
As Bernstein, Felder riffs on a few of the show's memorable numbers — "Maria," "Tonight," "Somewhere" — and discusses the contributions of its 26-year-old lyricist, a rookie (in 1957) named Stephen Sondheim. From there, the Laguna show takes flight.
Bernstein's troubled marriage and brief separation to enter a relationship with a young, male musician are depicted in Felder's production, as is the composer's emotional devastation as his cancer-stricken wife slips away.
Of the four artists he's depicted on the Laguna stage, Felder delves deepest into Bernstein, possibly since he was the most contemporary (he died in 1990). Yet his (and Felder's) reverence for the classical composers is quite evident.
Riveting, while at the same time somewhat superfluous, is Felder's (and Bernstein's) reverence for the music of the German anti-Semite Wagner, which he displays in a stunning excerpt from that composer's "Tristan und Isolde."
In "Maestro," even more than his Chopin or Beethoven tributes, Felder displays his mastery of musical vernacular to the point where many non-musical onlookers may start checking their watches. The theatrical portion of the program, its second half, effectively counterbalances the earlier, more studious section.
Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven and Bernstein. All giants in the musical arena. And eventually there'll be room for a fifth name — Hershey Felder.
TOM TITUS reviews theater for the Coastline Pilot
If You Go
What: "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. until Feb. 6 (special performances Jan. 16 at 7 p.m., Jan. 20 at 2 p.m.)
Cost: $35 to $70
CAll: (494) 497-2787Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times