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Untangling Bernstein’s Genius and Dissonance

By Daniella Walsh | LB Indy

He’s only been dead for 20 years but composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein has a place in the Pantheon of classical music none-the-less.

Actor-composer-pianist-playwright Hershel Felder brings Bernstein back to life in the latest of his one-man performances at the Laguna Playhouse after chronicling the lives and foibles of George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin and Ludwig von Beethoven.

Right at the start, Felder, decked out in a gray wig approximating Bernstein’s trademark shaggy mane, informs the audience that a great piece of music starts out with one perfect note, implying that the process of creating is something akin to “let there be light.”

The audience soon finds out that it is immensely helpful to be versed in at least the rudiments of classical music and Yiddish culture.

Felder dwells heavily on the older Bernstein, a schmuck who neglects his family by retreating into Torah after work, emerging only when he needs to bully his son. By implication, he neglects his wife and seems to care about little besides money. Felder’s character humorously ponders at one point how his parents ever got together long enough to produce him and his siblings.

Leonard, the eldest son, it turns out, falls in love with the piano after the family’s crazy aunt Clara deposits one in the home and, as unlikely as it seems at first, a star is born.

Felder has nothing on Meryl Streep when it comes to accents. He has his audience in stitches impersonating papa and the various musical greats Bernstein studied with along the way, who had immigrated from the environs of Eastern Europe.

Young Bernstein mysteriously is not enrolled in a yeshiva, though his father really wants him to become a rabbi. Instead he takes lessons at the Boston Latin School, contrives to take piano lessons from various sources and embarks on the road to stardom, accompanied by unquestionable talent and pure chutzpah.

Where Felder falls short perhaps is that Bernstein, at least in his narrative and deliverance, is oddly ageless. One never gets the feeling that the kid is actually young.

But, young Bernstein gets admitted to Harvard University, making a quota of 10 percent allotted for Jews per freshman class.

Felder makes clear that Bernstein’s ego helps him succeed in the elitist realm of classical music, where someone tries to convince the neophyte that his name would prevent him from rising to the top. To his credit, he ignores the advice and keeps his name and persona.  Felder moves the audience with Bernstein’s soul searching and his decision to remain who he is.

Felder does a great job illuminating Bernstein’s view of controversial composers. While he does not defend Wagner’s racism and anti-semitism, Bernstein credits the man for being a brilliant composer and for being true to himself. He also champions Gustav Mahler, a Jewish composer whose recognition suffered because of his religion.

Felder touches more lightly on Bernstein’s conflicted sexuality, a subject still skipped in drawing rooms of his time. Bernstein died in 1990. He was 72.

Felder subtly brings these conflicts to light by pointing out that Bernstein fell in love with nearly everyone he studied with, including the secretly gay Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and the woman who would become his wife and with whom he had three children, actress-musician Felicia Montealegre.

Felder deftly follows the trajectory of Bernstein’s career, touching lightly on how the advent of television and his wildly popular Young People’s Concerts fueled his career. His spectacularly photogenic looks may have helped. And then there is his popular score (among many others) for “West Side Story.” When Felder first sits down at the piano, the “perfect note” culminates in the timeless melody of “Maria.” (Singing, by the way, is the weak link in Felder’s otherwise impressive repertoire).

Many will not know what to make of the sequences as the conclusion nears. Felder portrays a guilt-wracked man who finally acknowledges his homosexuality, its destruction of his marriage, and of Felicia, who ultimately died of cancer.

If the play were strictly music, its finale would end in an ear-splitting crescendo. Bernstein screams at the audience that he is unsurpassed, ready to stand beside the greats. “I am God,” he screams, with more agony than egotistical insistence.

Whether that admission is a fall from grace, the audience must decide. As disconcerting this last part may seem, Felder uses it well to bring his own creation full circle, back to the purity of creation, that impeccable first note.

Hersey Felder continues in the one-man show about Leonard Bernstein at the Playhouse through Feb. 6

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