The genius in this case is Leonard Bernstein, a madly contradictory and brilliant music-maker whose influence on twentieth century classical and theater music is still being evaluated.
Felder’s play begins with a video of the actual Leonard Bernstein delivering a colorful, yet entertaining, illustrated lecture on music. When Felder sashays down the aisle, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, the lack of resemblance is, at first, bothersome. But, somehow, sitting at a piano—which he plays impeccably—his monologue pulls you into Bernstein’s tumultuous life story.
Bernstein was the son of Russian immigrants. His father Sam did everything he could to discourage his son from a career in music, but once Leonard played a note on his “crazy” Aunt Clara’s upright piano, he was hooked and with a combination of passion, intelligence, talent and luck, he worked his way up to world fame and adulation.
Felder skillfully turns Bernstein’s internal and external battles into a fascinating study, in the process illuminating the evolution of not just a great composer and conductor, but an international personality.
Felder doesn’t stint on exposing how Bernstein was emotionally torn apart by his homosexuality (which, ironically, helped his career through his involvement with gay personalities like Aaron Copland and Dimitri Mitropoulos).
Bernstein also felt a strong conflict between his musical theater work and his classical compositions, but when Felder plays several of his songs, analyzing the meaning of each chord and each key change, it’s clear that Bernstein didn’t stint on his more popular music. His one big disappointment was not being able to compose more due to his busy conducting and lecture work.
Also moving was Felder’s take on Bernstein’s family life: how his gay yearnings did damage to his otherwise strong feelings for his wife, Felicia Montealegre and his three children. After attempting a year of living as a gay man with a lover, he returned to his domestic life at the Dakota and saw his wife through her cancer and her subsequent death.
François-Pierre Couture’s fantasy set, with its torn drop cloth hanging on the back wall and continuing on under the grand piano upon which Felder displays his musical agility, creates a dreamy space, helped incredibly by Christopher Ash’s lighting and projections. Erik Carstensen’s sound design helps peer into Bernstein’s mind with the music and conversation only he could hear.
Joel Zwick’s direction keeps Felder moving along and also keeps the emotional surprises coming with regularity, ending with a cri de coeur that begins innocently enough with Felder doing a rendition of Bernstein’s “Simple Song” from his Mass, hoping for some recognition of the melody. When the audience doesn’t respond, he goes on through several of his songs, all the while letting one regret after another spill out uncontrollably.
This last scene, alone, is worth a trip to 59E59 to see Maestro.
Maestro (extended through October 23, 2016)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission