Hershey Felder Maestro Leonard Bernstein

Culture Watch

by Sarah A. Spitz

A Masterful Maestro

Hershey Felder occupies a unique theatrical niche. He takes renowned musical figures, such as Irving Berlin, Ludwig van Beethoven or George Gershwin, and creates one-man biographical shows, portraying those musicians while performing their music on a grand piano.

I’ve seen several of his performances over the years but I feel very strongly that his current production, “Maestro: Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills is his best.

I had a crush on “Lenny” while I was growing up because he was a rare Jewish American who conducted major symphony orchestras, and he devoted time to educating the nation via live television classical music broadcasts with the New York Philharmonic’s “Young People’s Concerts,” which I watched and learned from.

I knew he was Jewish, bi-sexual (but closeted), that he composed “West Side Story” and conducted around the world, and that there was a controversial episode regarding a party his wife threw to support the radical Black Panther Party. But Felder has filled in the gaps, and you’ll fall in love with Lenny’s story and life, as I did all over again.

Beginning with childhood and his strict Orthodox Jewish father, Bernstein’s love for music was irrepressible, and though his father denigrated his attempts to pursue it (“how will you make a living?”), he followed his heart to the excellence and renown he achieved.

Felder as Bernstein schools us in how music is made, performing not just works by Bernstein but those that influenced him. We hear the connection between his fathers niggunim, the Jewish melodies his father prayed to nightly in their home and his composition, “Jeremiah,” and the line from Beethoven to Bernstein in “West Side Story.”

While his deepest dream was to be a serious composer, Bernstein’s success came as a conductor. He studied with the greats: Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky were his earliest influences.

As Felder shows us how Lenny learned to conduct, his hands and baton become as expressive an instrument as the piano. Felder takes us through Bernstein’s prodigy years, the bold steps he took to put himself in the presence of the world’s great composers, although it was happenstance that found him in a concert seat next to the great American composer, Aaron Copland, who became his champion and one of his closest friends.

Felder portrays Bernstein searching for the love he missed from his father, and hints of his bisexuality – or, as he later declares, his homosexuality –  are revealed when he falls in love with the influencers in his life.

Ultimately Bernstein married the amazing Felicia Montealegre, and had three children with her, along with a spectacular social life, befitting a celebrity. But following decades of marriage, he left her for a man. When that relationship fell apart, Lenny returned to Felicia, who died not long after of lung cancer.

Felder’s performance as Lenny is thoroughly convincing, and he reaches deep inside himself to come up with the very recognizable voice of Bernstein, the slightly accented rhythms of his speech, the passion behind the music he loved, the frustration with not being accepted as a “serious composer.”

It’s masterful; do not miss it. Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” is onstage only through Aug. 28 with evening and matinee performances.

Felder is also presenting a special one-night only performance, “The Great American Songbook Sing-Along” taking the audience through 100 years of American music, from the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, to Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself. This takes place on August 22 at the Wallis. Bring your best singing chops.

For both productions, visit http://thewallis.org for tickets and further information.

REVIVAL RETURNS

“Awake and Sing!” by Clifford Odets enjoyed a critically acclaimed revival in 2015 at the Odyssey Theatre, and was extended by popular demand. Now it’s returning to The Odyssey, Aug. 27 – Oct. 2. This gritty, passionate, funny and heartbreaking masterpiece about the hopes and struggles of a lower-middle-class, three-generation Jewish family living in a Bronx apartment during the Great Depression continues to resonate 81 years after its 1935 premiere.

For more information, call (310) 477-2055 or visit www.OdysseyTheatre.com.

PLAY READINGS

Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the women’s liberation movement from the 60s through the 80s. As women around the world now achieve the highest levels of corporate, social, and political power, this still-timely Pulitzer Prize-winning play examines how we got here. 

SM Rep presents a staged reading of “The Heidi Chronicles” on Sunday, Aug. 21, at the Edye (the smaller black box theatre behind The Broad Stage), followed by a post-reading discussion with the company and Emmy nominated TV writer and producer Betsy Borns.

Tickets: http://www.thebroadstage.com/en/Performances/Theater/16_17_Productions/playreadingseries.

And before it reaches the LA Theatre Center stage in September, enjoy a free, sneak peek at the Latino Theatre Company’s “A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story,” this Friday, Aug. 19 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Santa Monica Main Library’s Martin Luther King Auditorium.

Three plays by Evelina Fernandez, “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity” will be seen in their entirety at LATC and previewed here, following the Morales family through decades of the Mexican-American experience, from a remote mining town in Arizona during World War II, to the Phoenix family home during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and finally to Los Angeles following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005.

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at culturewatch@www.smdp.com.