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Arts and Entertainment

Theater Review: Leonard Bernstein is the Geffen's Maestro

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It's kind of a gutsy move, before the start of a one-man show about a real-life person, to play extended video footage of that actual person whom the actor is about to recreate. As soon as the actor shows up, the audience is practically compelled to compare his voice, look and mannerisms with what was just up on the screen. But during the twenty or so minutes when the audience files in to the Geffen Playhouse to see Hershey Felder in Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, a series of Bernstein's own musical lectures about the art of conducting the great composers is projected on the stage backdrop. The gambit then pays off when Felder appears and begins playing the piano and talking to us. He's not an exact replica of the great man himself, but he effectively adopts his subject's congenially didactic tone and demeanor, which we've just been watching, and runs with it.

Maestro starts off with a strong flourish, as Felder plays and sings the familiar strains of "Somewhere" from Bernstein's West Side Story before shifting into a passage of similarly structured Jewish liturgical music that young Lenny grew up with as the son of religious immigrants. Indeed, the first 40 or so minutes of this show are perhaps the most effective dramatically, as Felder's Bernstein narrates the story of his early family life, and particularly his father's opposition to his musical ambitions, followed by his adventures as a protegé of some of the leading musical figures of the '30s and '40s. (Felder's impression of Aaron Copland is especially priceless.)

Once Bernstein's career really takes off, Maestro's emphasis shifts away from the biographical toward the strictly musical, basically ignoring his unique position as a classical music media celebrity and intermittently controversial public persona. Bernstein does mention a few times that he has always been in search of "love," and he tells the story of how he abandoned his wife for a while to take up with a younger man. But this cursory episode lack the richness of character detail and emotional context that Felder imbued into the story of the younger Bernstein's encounters with his charismatic mentors.

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Rather, the evening's second half or so is primarily devoted to Bernstein's art as a composer, conductor and musician. He extols the unparalleled romantic qualities of Richard Wagner, despite the composer's virulent anti-Semitism, as Felder plays an extended passage from "Tristan and Isolde." Several of Bernstein's own compositions are played and discussed at varying length, including an array of songs from West Side Story, which he laments is the only original work that people ever remember him for. Bernstein also grouses that the atonalist crowd never respected him, even as he brought their work to the attention of wider audiences than they ever reached themselves. The conductor's affinity with Gustav Mahler, whose work he championed, is explored, albeit only briefly. A particular highlight is Felder's exposition of the Beethoven Seventh. Surprisingly neglected is Bernstein's ahead-of-his-time crossover advocacy of rock music in the '60s, including the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and even the Kinks.

While the Bernstein of Felder's portrayal is a sterner and far less playful figure than many may remember him as, he is nevertheless an interesting and usually engaging companion for the 100 or so minutes we spend with him in Maestro. And when he sits down at the piano to play, the music lesson is always compelling and sometimes even mesmerizing.

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, directed by Joel Zwick, plays every evening except Monday, plus Saturday and Sunday matinees, through December 12 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood (with an additional performance on Monday, November 22, and no performance Thanksgiving Day). Discount tickets available for some performances on goldstar.com.