Hershey Felder in Maestro at Berkeley Rep through July xx. Photo: Kevin Berne
Hershey Felder in Maestro at Berkeley Rep through July 3. Photo: Kevin Berne

Even before it opened, Berkeley Rep extended the run of Hershey Felder’s brilliant new one-man show about the life of the renowned 20th century American music wunderkind, Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990).

Berkeley Rep theater-goers and critics have already sung the praises of Hershey Felder, the talented concert pianist, composer and actor, who in 2013, wrote and performed the first-rate George Gershwin Alone, as well as adapted and directed the wildly popular The Pianist of Willesden Lane.

With direction by the multi-talented Joel Zwick, in 105 uninterrupted minutes, this new show ably accomplishes the challenging task of recounting Bernstein’s career from Jewish American prodigy to internationally celebrated composer, conductor, author, music lecturer and pianist, while delicately exploring Bernstein’s thorny private life.

Hershey Felder in Maestro. Photo: Kevin Berne
Hershey Felder in Maestro. Photo: Kevin Berne

Felder reaches new depths of writing, acting and musical talents in Maestro. He displays an uncanny ability to capture Bernstein’s mercurial personality, melodious voice, scornful expression and fluid body movements, all while playing Bernstein’s own compositions as well as his favorite composers’ piano pieces.

Bernstein’s life story is shown in chronological order, with a bit too much time spent on his childhood, and one episode confusingly out of order. Before the story reaches Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story, we’re told about the damage caused to Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, by Tom Wolfe’s biting 1970 article, Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s, about a fundraiser she gave for the Black Panther’s defense fund.

Bernstein was in his heyday when I was growing up. I watched, as did millions of kids, his televised symphonic music lectures on the show, Omnibus and his later lectures about jazz, conducting, American musical comedy, modern music, J.S. Bach, and opera. The Omnibus programs and Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts are now available on DVD.

At that time, and when I (twice) saw the Broadway version of West Side Story, I didn’t know that Bernstein had been the first major American symphony conductor, nor did I think his writing symphonic music as well as show tunes was anything unusual. But seeing Maestro put Bernstein’s magnificent talent and larger-than-life career and personality into perspective for me.

Felder emphasizes Bernstein’s disappointment in never receiving the acclaim he sought for his orchestral compositions. Yet, when Felder played beautiful and haunting arrangements of Maria and Tonight, I couldn’t help but think that these pieces reach and affect so many more people than do symphonic works. Perhaps Lenny was too hard on himself and his legacy.

Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro is playing at Berkeley Rep through July 3, 2014.

For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...