Leonard Bernstein is on the video screen, lecturing on the art of conducting while the audience files in for “Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Bernstein, the longtime conductor of the New York Philharmonic and the composer of scores for “West Side Story,” “On the Town” and other musicals, was a natural teacher with a gift for bringing arcane terms and symbols to life. A generation learned classical music theory through his “Young People’s Concerts” — broadcast on CBS, in prime time — and the clip conveys their appeal. I felt a twinge of disappointment when the house lights dimmed and the human-sized Felder replaced the black-and-white digital colossus onstage. Felder sure had big shoes to fill.
Bernstein isn’t the first musical celebrity Felder has impersonated. A wonderful pianist as well as a composer, writer, singer and actor, with a deep knowledge of music history, Felder has created and performed one-man bio-dramas about Beethoven, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and others. Assuming the role of a great artist is an act of reverence, of selfless dedication to keeping a legacy alive. At the same time, it’s kind of audacious — especially when some people in the audience experienced the original. (Bernstein died in 1990.)
Starting with that clip was, I thought, cheeky. It got my attention. It made me study Felder’s every gesture with gimlet eyes. He doesn’t quite achieve Bernstein’s matinee-idol charisma. There’s a hauteur to his manner that’s a little off. Is he overdoing a faint Yiddish accent?
But my skepticism, it turned out, was only softening me up for the kill. Later in the show, as Felder plays the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” a clip of Bernstein playing the same piece appears on the backdrop behind him. Except for the disparity in their sizes, the two performers, live and onscreen, are indistinguishable, their fingers dancing across the keyboard in synchronism. Their suit jackets even crease in the same place. It’s the sort of moment that can resuscitate the most moribund faith in live theater. All the elements — Felder’s script and performance, the meticulous direction of Joel Zwick (best known for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), Francois-Pierre Couture’s set and the gorgeous screen projections and lighting by Christopher Ash — come together like clockwork.
They’ve had some time to get it right. “Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro” ran at the Geffen Playhouse in 2010. Since then, according to the press materials, it has been performed more than 600 times across the world. Ash’s projection and lighting designs are new. After it closes here, the production will move on to New York, where it will most likely continue to charm even those (like me) who find the monodrama format contrived.
Felder doesn’t escape all the pitfalls of the genre here. The first half of Bernstein’s story has a compelling, fairy-tale arc. It has an obstacle our hero must overcome (in Bernstein’s case his carping, Talmud-obsessed father, who thought music was a waste of time). It has passion and talent winning the admiration of highly placed mentors (including conductors Dimitri Mitropoulos and Serge Koussevitzky, and composer Aaron Copland, all of whom Felder impersonates with a rich variety of accents). And it has a dramatic public coronation (as an assistant conductor for the philharmonic, Bernstein had to step in for a sick visiting conductor at the last minute, taking the world by storm).
It’s harder to wrestle the second half of Bernstein’s life into a pleasing shape. Felder tries to find a through-line: “Love really is a thing I have been trying to understand all my life,” he has Bernstein announce, as he embarks on the story of his marriage to the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre. Bernstein was gay — Felder communicates this delicately but unequivocally — and although his bond with Montealegre may have been strong, he also betrayed her cruelly. Later in life he dabbled, controversially, in politics. Felder has shoehorned in some of these incidents, but they feel perfunctory.
Bio-dramas, while lionizing the gifts of rare individuals, also present their fatal flaws, perhaps as a consolation for those of us in the audience who are ordinary. Felder’s Bernstein, at the end of his life, complains that his compositions — his symphonies, for example — aren’t better known, and that the only melody he will be remembered for is the beautiful “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” Ah, geniuses: They’re just like us.
“Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro,” Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 28. $25-$85. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission).
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