Hershey Felder has built one-man shows around some iconic musicians—artists like Beethoven, Chopin, and George Gershwin. But Leonard Bernstein is the first pantheon member he’s tackled whose image and manner are readily available to all of us through video. You can find a few seconds of Gershwin on YouTube, pounding out “I Got Rhythm” in a film clip from 1934; Bernstein lived well into the television era and exploited that medium to huge effect. He was an unmitigated celebrity. I remember the Young People’s Concerts, broadcast on CBS, in which he’d lead the New York Philharmonic in some significant composition while explaining, say, the notion of musical intervals. Bernstein performed and lectured extensively, had a high profile—and even some notoriety at times—in the press. He was charming, vivid, incredibly smart, and pretty much ubiquitous. All of which means there’s some risk for Felder in trying to impersonate him: we may think we know the guy in a way that it’s impossible to know Chopin.
Felder takes the risk and succeeds on every level. Physically, he’s got the mellifluous Bernstein voice, the urbane slouch, and the conceptualizing hands. Musically, well, that’s the best part. He’s extraordinary—completely up to the intellectual and virtuosic rigors of pieces ranging from West Side Story‘s “Maria” to the Jeremiah symphony. Biographically, Felder takes us from Bernstein’s absurd relationship with his father, through multiple, fascinating mentors, to his painful and pain-causing adventures in homosexuality. I would’ve liked to have seen more context, especially with regard to Bernstein’s political activism, but I’m not complaining.