By: Paulanne Simmons
Hershey Felder, whose has created solo shows based on the lives and music of Gershwin, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Irving Berlin, has now turned his attention and considerable talents to Leonard Bernstein. In Maestro, Felder, a pianist, singer, playwright and actor, so throughly inhabits his subject we get the feeling Bernstein is someone we may have known all our lives. What’s more we really like him.
Felder doesn’t need more than a piano, a chair, lighting, a few slides and the excellent direction of Joel Zwick to work his magic. He begins with one of Bernstein’s famous music lessons, but most of the evening is devoted to Bernstein telling the audience his life story.
By any account, Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Mass., the son of a beauty-supplies salesman from Russia, was fortunate in his career. Most important, he had the rich heritage of Jewish and Hebrew music that never deserted him.
Bernstein discovered music fortuitously, when his Aunt Clara, in the midst of a divorce, sent an upright piano to the Bernstein home. And, or course, he became an overnight sensation at the age of twenty-five, when he was asked to fill in for the ailing Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic.
But Felder reveals that life was not totally sweet for Bernstein. First there was his homosexuality, which kept intruding on his marriage to. Then there was the scandal in 1970 when his wife, Felicia Cohn Montealegre, threw a party to raise money for twenty-one imprisoned Black Panthers.
But most of all there was Bernstein’s disappointment that despite his many successes, he was never truly appreciated as a composer of classical music. At one point, Felder asks, almost begs the audience to sing one of Bernstein’s symphonies.
Even at his most extravagant, Felder never makes Bernstein ridiculous. Despite his oversized ego, Bernstein is always human and often funny. Felder makes Bernstein a fine mimic. And his Yiddish accent is impeccable.
However, even without the outstanding writing and acting, the opportunity to hear Felder play not only Bernstein, but also Gershwin, Copland, Wagner and many others is a sheer pleasure.
Through Oct. 16 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 Street between Park and Madison. For tickets: (212) 279-4200.
Due to overwhelming ticket demand, Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro will extend its run for one week only at 59E59 Theaters. The show, which has been selling out performances since it opened, will now run through Sunday, October 23.