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THEATER REVIEW: Hershey Felder stars in “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein”

More than anything, Leonard Bernstein wanted to be known as a serious composer. But he will likely be remembered primarily for the musical “West Side Story,” his long stint as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and the television lectures on music and conducting which made him “the world’s musical rabbi.”

This and other conflicts in the life of the great American original are rivetingly illustrated in “Hershey Felder In Maestro: The Art Of Leonard Bernstein,” playing through Aug. 28 at the Old Globe Theatre.

A black-and-white tape of Bernstein’s lecture on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony plays in the background as the audience is seated. Then Bernstein sits at the piano and demonstrates the musical structure of the song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”

Felder takes on some 25 roles as he examines the childhood, education and training, private life and celebrity of this giant on the American music scene.

Born in Lawrence, Mass., Bernstein’s father (a Russian immigrant who sold hair-dressing supplies) wanted most for his son “to be a mensch,” but did not much approve of his musical ambitions. Dad only grudgingly tolerated the boy’s “noisy” practicing on the piano in the hallway of the family home.

Lenny outstripped his teacher’s ability within a year and began giving lessons himself to earn the money to pay for his own more advanced lessons at the Boston Conservatory.

Though a gifted pianist, composition was Bernstein’s first love.

Felder is a gifted mimic; one of his best impressions here is of that other American classic, composer Aaron Copland, to whom Bernstein showed a youthful composition. Copland declared it “crap” and advised the boy to study conducting at the Curtis Institute with Fritz Reiner. (Along the way, Felder plays snatches of Copland’s “Piano Variations.”)

At Tanglewood in 1940, Bernstein met conductor Serge Koussevitzky and “fell in love with this balding, aging genius who became the father I never had.” Koussevitzy was responsible for Bernstein’s expansive conducting style; It was he who counseled the young genius to “conduct with your whole body.”

Felder ignores neither Bernstein’s sexual ambivalence nor the heavy price he paid in guilt after he left his 25-year marriage for a gay relationship that lasted less than a year.

To his disappointment, Bernstein was in much greater demand as conductor than composer. He made it a point to program contemporary composers, but sadly notes, “I conducted these serious atonal composers all over the world, but they never accepted me as one of their own.”

Felder plays several pieces here, but he knows it’s “West Side Story” most people want to hear about, and he doesn’t disappoint. He teaches us about “Maria,” that great song from “West Side Story” that starts with a tritone, describing the show as a “musical piece with a quiet ending and dead kids all over the stage.”

Bernstein may have been a reluctant conductor, but he was an American original who influenced what the world heard and how they understood it. In this sense, he and Felder were colleagues.

The details

“Hershey Felder in Maestro: The Art Of Leonard Bernstein” plays through Aug. 28 at the Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park.

Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Sunday and selected Saturdays at 2 pm.

For tickets, call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.