BERKELEY -- "The key to the mystery of a great artist is that for reasons unknown, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another" and leaves us with the feeling that something is right in the world."
That's how iconic American composer Leonard Bernstein defined artistic brilliance. Rigor, chutzpah and ego were key to Bernstein's mystique, and Hershey Felder channels all of those qualities in "Maestro."
Felder orchestrated a similar homage to musical genius in "George Gershwin Alone" last year. Now he returns to Berkeley Repertory Theatre with another charmer that tickles the ivories and the funny bone. While this piece shares many characteristics with that breezy Gershwin monologue, there's far more dramatic heft to this one-man show, which runs through July 3 at the Rep, than meets the eye.
Joel Zwick directs the 105-minute piece with panache, framing Felder's virtuosity at the piano well. If the play doesn't probe as far beneath the surface of Bernstein's character as one might wish, Felder crystallizes the watershed moments in the maestro's life with poetry and sensitivity. Certainly the songs, particularly the selections from "West Side Story," are as magical as ever. And it's no mean feat that Felder launches the show with video of the real Bernstein in all his charismatic glory but then proceeds to compete with that image in our mind's eye.
At first the play seems to echo the "Gershwin" show with its glib mix of childhood anecdotes and musical epiphanies. The son of a beauty supplier, Bernstein was raised on the harmonies of Jewish mysticism, and his yearning for something greater colored the arc of his life and work. His fate was sealed when his meshugeneh Aunt Clara got divorced and gave his family her piano.
Alas, Bernstein's father wanted him to be a mensch, not a minstrel. He had no interest in the arts, so little Lenny paid for his own piano lessons ($1 a pop). The upstart schmoozed his way from one elder statesmen conductor to another until Bruno Walter fell ill and he had the chance to conduct the New York Philharmonic on a national broadcast. He was young and unprepared, not to mention hung over, but he seized the chance to soar.
In the end, Felder seems to connect more deeply to Bernstein than to Gershwin. He captures the weight of the musician's struggles, how he was driven to please his demanding father and how he was distracted from composition, his first love, by conducting. He also explores how Bernstein thrived on television, using the medium to bring classical music to the masses, but ran afoul of serious composers who looked down their noses at his flair for showmanship.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of the biography concern his love life. Felder teases out some insights into how Bernstein's bisexuality affected his life and career and how men and music and power become inextricably entwined in his mind early on in life.
Still, the psychological aspects of this biography aren't quite as compelling as the window the show affords us into the rarefied world of the symphony hall. While Felder's facility with the piano is at the core of his performance style, he takes pain to explore the mystery of the art of conducting here. Watching this deconstruction of the craft, the way the conductor suffuses the composition with his own personality, is fascinating.
It's in this role as music teacher, illuminating the continuum that led from the greats to Bernstein to his own proteges, that "Maestro" hits its highest notes.
Created and performed by Hershey Felder
Through: July 3
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $29-$87 (subject to change); 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org