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Review: ‘Bernstein on Broadway’ at The Kennedy Center

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It was a glorious evening for Leonard Bernstein and musical theater fans at The Kennedy Center. It was the exceptional, one-night-only opening to the worldwide celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s upcoming 100th birthday. It was Bernstein on Broadway.

Leonard Bernstein. Photo by Al Ravenna, 1955, courtesy of the Library of Congress

The evening’s celebration focused on Bernstein’s works for Broadway. The selected musical pieces ran the gamut from the savory to the sweet, from jazzy, horn-rich numbers to resonant, more doleful string-centered ballads. There were selections of the well-known to the perhaps lesser-recalled, from the explosively consequential to the quieter, less showy. The selected pieces were from West Side Story (1957), Wonderful Town (1953), On the Town (1944), Peter Pan (1950), Candide (1956), MASS (1971) and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976).

Matthew Hydzik and Mikaela Bennett. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Under the direction and energized choreography of Broadway’s three-time Tony Award-winning Kathleen Marshall and the fine music direction of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra by Rob Fisher, the evening was a rich feast for the ears and eyes. With Fisher and Marshall in charge, the choice, pacing, and sequencing of the numbers – plus the vibrant dancing – this was a golden opportunity to listen to human voices expertly matched to particular songs. All of that, propelled by an orchestra at its prime, was a joy. This was not a stand-and-deliver, hurriedly staged concert.

The clear, emotive voices of Mikaela Bennett (The Golden Apple at Encores!), Santino Fontana (Cinderella, Act One), Matthew Hydzik (the Kennedy Center production of Side Show), Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess), Beth Malone (Fun Home), and Laura Osnes (Bandstand, Cinderella) in about 15 or so solos, duets, and productions numbers, made my mind open wide to not only entertainment, but to how Bernstein could weave issues beyond “mere” love and the joyful exploration of New York City life into his compositions. The performers made my heart swell and my soul soar with their renditions. No one, I mean no one, just “phoned it in.” They were totally there, in the moment.

Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Joining the principal performers was an animated ensemble of Broadway “triple-threats” including Max Clayton, Kim Fauré, Keven Quillon, Shina Ann Morris, Brandon Rubendall, Samantha Sturm, Erica Sweany, and Anthony Wayne. As the evening moved into its second act, members of the Choral Arts Society of Washington added their glorious voices and presence on the stage. Let me also highlight the lighting design of local Helen Hayes Award recipient Dan Covey; his use of soft pinks, the golden hue of morning, the violet of evening, and some black-and-white effects were potent additions to the mood of the event.  Projection design from Greg Emetaz added a warm glow to the proceedings. while Tony Award recipient Scott Lehrer”s sound design was crisply effective.

Before I dive more deeply into specific musical numbers, let me note that the evening was lit up with the appearance of Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein. She was an ebullient, cheery storyteller about her dad. With a music stand that she carried onto the stage, Jamie Bernstein told lively anecdotes, as well as bits and pieces about individual musical numbers in production. She was an intoxicant, serving up the evening enthusiastically. “I’m thrilled to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect his multiple achievements to the 21st century, as well as introduce his legacy to new generations,” said Bernstein in Kennedy Center marketing information.

Okay now, so what musical numbers showed up in Bernstein on Broadway? The wide swath included the likes of this list I wrote as they came to be heard:

Wonderful Town: “Overture,” “Ohio,” “Conga,” “Ballet at the Village Vortex,” and “Wrong Note Rag.”
On the Town: “New York/New York,” “Lonely Town,” and “I Can Cook.”
West Side Story: “Something,” “Mambo,” and “Tonight.”
Peter Pan: “My House” and “Little Bit of Love.”
Candide: “Make Our Garden Grow.”
1600 Pennsylvania Ave: “Take Care of this House.”

Full Company. Photo by Teresa Wood.

But there is more to bring to your attention: while not part of the one-night performance of Bernstein on Broadway.  There is an official Leonard Bernstein exhibition at The Kennedy Center.

It is a traveling exhibit that is free and open to the public. The GRAMMY Museum® displays more than 150 artifacts — including photographs, personal items, papers, scores, correspondence, costumes, furniture, and films. It is a comprehensive retrospective of Bernstein’s life, career and legacy as a composer, conductor, educator, and activist/humanitarian.

The exhibition holds a wealth of treasures for Bernstein fans. Perhaps, like I was,  you’ll be drawn to the front page of the November 14, 1943 New York Times, full of war news but for an article about Leonard Bernstein stepping in at the last minute for ailing conductor Bruno Walter in a nationally broadcast concert. Or perhaps an issue of Life Magazine calling out Bernstein for being “soft” on Communism. Or perhaps you’ll spend some time remembering those televised live performances in the late 1950’s called Young People’s Concerts.

Beth Malone and Ensemble. Photo by Teresa Wood.

“Leonard Bernstein at 100” was curated by the GRAMMY Museum® in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Bernstein Family. Presented in cooperation with the Bernstein Family, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc., Brandeis University, and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, when the exhibition leaves The Kennedy Center, it will be showcased at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (Dec. 9, 2017–Mar. 24, 2018). It will then tour to other cities across the country.

Bernstein on Broadway received a well-deserved, full-house standing ovation. The performance was a most tuneful, pleasurable evening that added to the luster of Leonard Bernstein for this Baby Boomer. For those with fewer direct connections and memories of Leonard Bernstein, there would be no better way to learn about his brilliance than a performance such as Bernstein on Broadway.

Running time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Bernstein on Broadway performed on September 22, 2017 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information on upcoming shows, go to The Kennedy Center website.

Notes:

While not part of the one-night production, there is a movie score credit that I want to provide. It is for Leonard Bernstein’s work for On the Waterfront. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs with Marlon Brando in the last scene. I can never think of this scene as being as powerful without Bernstein’s score. Here it is.

Bernstein’s breadth of works will be well represented in a wide variety of performances during the coming months at The Kennedy Center . For instance, there be will presentations devoted to Bernstein’s composing legacy, including performances of Bernstein’s concert works throughout the season. Later in the year, the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater will present several ballets choreographed to Bernstein’s music.

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