Having anatomized the lives and catalogs of Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin in previous biographical monodramas, writer-actor-musician Hershey Felder assumes a more modern, certainly more likable and flamboyant persona in “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein.” The script is persuasive on its protagonist’s art, less so (at this point) on the personal life, yet Felder clearly revels in the man’s passions and contradictions. “Maestro,” beginning its journey at the Geffen Playhouse, bodes well to become his most popular and even enduring composer investigation.
“Maestro” begins in the form of (and with footage from) one of the famous “Young People’s Concerts.” This seems most fitting as the inexhaustible Felder, in his non-stop world tours, continues to carry out Bernstein’s mission of exposing mass audiences to great music and savvy musicianship.
Deftly and amusingly, Felder explores the roots of Bernstein’s themes in the great composers of the past, as well as the Jewish folk tunes, which forged a bond between a willful son and stubborn Old World father.
Actor Felder shows a delightful, hitherto veiled mimicry talent in bringing out, through anecdote, the various geniuses serving as the prodigy’s guides and seducers (in more ways than one): sexless, demanding Fritz Reiner; first crush Dimitri Mitropoulos; the titan, Serge Koussevitsky; and contemporary Aaron Copland who, we’re told, pronounced the youthful Bernstein’s music largely worthless and advised on a conducting career.
But discussions of bisexuality and erratic relations with wife Felicia would have no place in a CBS broadcast, shifting the monologue into an undefined limbo in which we keep wondering why Bernstein is telling us all this stuff. Neither confessing nor self-justifying, his largely informational presentation lacks need or purpose, depriving the show’s second half of narrative drive.
The ambivalence among his various roles (conductor, theater composer, serious composer, husband and father, proud gay man) is discussed but not cogently interpreted, and loose ends remain. Did writing musicals seem like a comedown? Did all those outside influences inhibit his finding a unique voice? Was he haunted, perhaps, by Copland’s dismissal? (It seems odd for Felder to have included that tidbit without following up on it later.)
As lights and life dim (helmer Joel Zwick nicely modulating Francois-Pierre Couture’s production elements throughout), Bernstein/Felder enumerates all the little-known, underappreciated opuses. Deservedly so? We can’t tell, but it’s tough to empathize with his expressed regret that after a life of missed opportunity, “West Side Story” will be his sole enduring legacy. Responsibility for some of the 20th century’s most beloved melodies is surely, by most people’s lights, a life’s triumph rather than its punishment.