A regular visitor to Chicago with a loyal audience he has carefully cultivated over several years, the pianist-showman Hershey Felder has performed solo shows at the Royal George Theatre about George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven. In general, the formula has been similar: Felder assumes the character of the composer—donning, where necessary, the appropriate wig—and intersperses biographical nuggets with his own bravura performances of their greatest hits at the grand piano. Although not for all tastes, the shows have always been a genuinely distinctive blend of showmanship and music-education, reflecting Felder's self-appointed role as a kind of populist ambassador for classical music and a man who has figured out how to attract and entertain audiences by putting, you might say, the classics in context.
Felder's latest show, "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein" and the best of his self-composed entertainments to date, is something rather different and something significantly more complicated.
Felder, self-evidently, has grown older and "Maestro" (which is the most serious and closely observed of his shows) suggests that his work has matured and become significantly more self-revealing. And in picking Bernstein—a complex American genius who died only in 1991—Felder has smartly obliged himself to step outside of his own comfort zone. Felder knows very well he can bring his audience to his feet by impressing them at the piano. He certainly plays a good deal in "Maestro" (and not just Bernstein's own compositions) but to his great credit, he's walked away from the stuff he finds easiest. Felder, I suspect, sees more of himself in Bernstein (another dedicated classical populist) than has ever been the case before. And thus this assumption of character—this bleeding of self—flows more organically to the keyboard. With very compelling results.
His previous subjects were, of course, primarily composers. Much of Bernstein's life was spent conducting—and, perhaps surprisingly, Felder does not run from that reality as build his entire show around it, using the idea that the great insecurity of Bernstein's life was that he wanted to be known as a serious composer even as his mentors (such as Dimitri Mitropoulos, Aaron Copland and Fritz Reiner) pushed him toward conducting. Felder also makes much of Bernstein's pain over the anguish he caused his wife, Felicia Cohn Montealegre, when he left her for a man. Aside from the smoking that helped kill Bernstein, Felder packs in a lot. He also benefits from Bernstein's own interest in populist education, setting the show in a TV studio with Bernstein exploring his life. He could not do that with Beethoven.
Felder has more material than he has time to present and the show falters in the last few minutes, when he has to rush past the Mass and bring things to a climax at a very different (and thus jarring) dramaturgical pace from the one he previous sets. At that point, a certain artificiality intrudes. But "Maestro," which Felder is trying to get to Broadway, remains this talented performer's most revealing, and certainly most moving, piece of work. At one point, as he plays a selection from "West Side Story," used here as an example of Bernstein's disappointment at not being remembered for some great concerto, he hit the keys with a palpable note of self-loathing. There's a new tone of irony and remove in "Maestro," and it befits both the performer and his subject.
When: Through Dec. 30
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Tickets: $55 at 312-988-9000 or theroyalgeorgetheatre.com