As you take your seat for Maestro: Leonard Bernstein, now at the Cleveland Play House, the person in question is being shown on a large backdrop—a kinescope of one of Bernstein's popular music lectures from the early days of television.
That is a wonderful framing device for what is to come, since this one-person touring show by Harvey Felder seeks to educate us about the amazing career of composer/conductor Bernstein. He was one of the first American conductors to gain worldwide acclaim, and he did it without abandoning his Jewish name and heritage at a time when that seemed the sensible thing to do.
Felder, who has done solo romps through the lives of other composers (Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven) is an abundantly talented pianist and performer, weaving together music and dialect-inflected stories in this 105-minute tour de force. However, there are aspects of the show that one might wish were more thoroughly thought through.
Of course, it is quite risky to portray a man who only died a mere 23 years ago, since many of us remember Bernstein and his way of expressing himself. And for those who don't, there is the introductory video, projected on a stage that includes a 1950's-style TV camera and huge Klieg lights.
Wisely or not, Felder decides not to try an impersonation of Bernstein, who had a casually elegant and often wry manner of speaking, and instead opts for more stentorian tones.
Adopting a Wikipedia-entry structure for the play, Felder ushers the audience through a chronology of Bernstein's life. It begins with his strict father, who reads the Torah every night and who can't abide his son's love affair with music since it won't lead to a productive (i.e., money making) career.
This love of music leads Bernstein to want to become a composer, but many of his early influencers try to dissuade him, pointing him towards conducting. Most shattering is his encounter with famed American composer Aaron Copland, who dismisses Lenny's compositions as derivative and also suggests he take up conducting.
Indeed, the search for love and passion within music is at the heart of this work, and that is where Felder's writing truly soars. We gradually feel Bernstein writhing, as if impaled on his conductor's baton, wanting to compose glorious music that fits into the continuum of great music starting with Beethoven.
The show is bookended with the Bernstein tune "Somewhere (There's a Place For Us)" from West Side Story. That musical, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has become Bernstein's enduring legacy, for now at least, even though he wrote symphonic and orchestral music along with ballets, opera and chamber music.
As presented by Felder, it is strongly implied that Bernstein experienced that fact as a failure. And this is where this production shies away from more detailed analysis. It would be fascinating to learn why a massive and genre-defining success such as West Side Story would not be thoroughly rewarding.
In a similar way, this play touches on Bernstein's personal life with his wife Felicia and their three children. Hints are dropped early about Bernstein's closeted gay preferences, and then stated outright when, at age 58, he leaves his wife to live with a young man. These passions are only dealt with in passing, however.
One small disappointment is that Felder plays the piano less than he does in his other "composers sonatas," and does more singing. While he can handle certain singing ranges, he is not nearly as accomplished vocally as he is on the piano, and that eventually takes its toll.
That said, Maestro is a bold choice and a captivating performance. And it brings us closer to Bernstein, a man beset by multiple demons, who managed to achieve a laundry list of firsts while becoming the nation's favorite music teacher via television.