A year-long international celebration of the life of Leonard Bernstein called “Bernstein at 100” received its official launch at a memorable, one-night-only show Bernstein on Broadway in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre on September 22nd. What a magnificent life and what a spectacular opening!
The evening consisted of selections of all of Bernstein’s body of work written for the theatre. Chronologically, those works were On the Town (1944), Peter Pan (1950), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), West Side Story (1957), MASS (1971), and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976).
The concert featured six talented stars (Mikaela Bennett, Santino Fontana, Matthew Hydzik, Norm Lewis, Beth Malone, and Laura Osnes), a versatile ensemble of eight, and forty members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, joined by the Choral Arts Society of Washington. More than 75 performers along with memorably visual projections from Greg Emetaz made the Eisenhower Theatre feel surprisingly intimate.
Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest child, added texture to the story. She appeared after the opening Wonderful Town overture (appropriately asking “Wasn’t that music delicious?”) and again midway through the second half of the performance to tell anecdotes and enthusiastically describe the special characteristics of individual Bernstein songs and his music generally. These features included a wonderful embrace of classical, popular and other musical styles; the enthusiasm of a man who loved his adopted home of New York City; and, the depth and optimistic spirit of a man who ultimately believed that music could elevate humanity.
There are those who think that a 2 CD greatest hits collection of Leonard Bernstein ideally would consist of the entire West Side Story score and another disc of remaining hits. West Side Story represented four songs out of twenty plus selections demonstrating the depth and versatility of Bernstein’s oeuvre.
The other most well-represented shows were On the Town and Wonderful Town. Matthew Hydzik and two members of the ensemble took on the roles of the three sailors out for a memorable 24 hours in On the Town. They demonstrated their vocal, acting, and dancing chops with the first vocal number, saluting “New York, New York” as “a helluva town” while projections of the city were shown behind them.
The great (and almost criminally underutilized) Norm Lewis scored both with On the Town’s “Lonely Town” and Wonderful Town’s “It’s Love” (the latter with Mikaela Bennett, about whom more will be said soon). Lewis has a powerful stage presence and a beautiful baritone voice, which he employs with great emotional range.
Of course, all of the stars performing in Bernstein on Broadway combined technical vocal ability with the acting skills that have propelled them to the top of Broadway. Laura Osnes sparkled with both romance “Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town) and wistfulness in a song from Bernstein’s lesser known Peter Pan (“Who Am I?” sung by the character Wendy).
Among other lesser known works, an earnest rendition of a portion of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS (commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center) by Matthew Hydzik shows that the well-meaning, atonal work is more ambitious than successful. A greater religious passion was generated by the song that followed it in the program, “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
Remember the name Mikaela Bennett, who sang “Somewhere” so beautifully it caused chills. This recent Julliard graduate has a spectacular voice, also demonstrated in performing West Side Story’s “Tonight” with Hydzik. Also doing right by West Side Story was Santino Fontana with his stirring rendition “Something’s Coming.”
Special note to West Side Story fans: As part of the centennial Bernstein celebration, Steven Reineke and the NSO Pops will be performing West Side Story in concert this February. This music was meant to be performed with a full and talented orchestra.
West Side Story also brings up the wonderful energy of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra led by Rob Fisher. The fun and liveliness of “Mambo” from that show (performed to open the post-intermission music) was only exceeded by Conga from Wonderful Town (which closed the opening half of the concert.
Conga revealed what a comic star Beth Malone is. The looks on her face as she is thrown about by the four men of the ensemble during that number caused several laugh out loud moments. She further demonstrated her hilarious acting skills in “I Can Cook” from On the Town.
Both the ensemble and the Choral Arts Society deserve kudos, too. The ensemble players had their brightest moment in the spotlight performing the “Ballet at the Village Vortex” from Wonderful Town (yes, they can sing, act, and dance beautifully).
The Choral Arts Society contributed to several numbers, most notably a glorious rendition of Candide’s “Make Our Garden Grow” that closed the show. Perhaps the biggest quibble with the selections is that no other songs from Candide were chosen.
Director Kathleen Marshall did a fine job piecing together the sequence of songs and utilizing the cast in delightful choreography.
Of course, there’s more to Leonard Bernstein’s life than the music he wrote. In addition to being a great composer, he also won great distinction as a conductor, an educator, and a humanitarian. There is a fine free exhibit celebrating Bernstein’s life at the Kennedy Center on the Terrace level through November 5th, and more information about this centennial celebration can be found at https://leonardbernstein.com.
Perhaps the best of many projections came at the end of the show. Leonard Bernstein is shown facing upward with his eyes closed with a look of beatific serenity. I imagine that would be his reaction listening to this exquisite Kennedy Center tribute concert.
Bernstein on Broadway. Director/Choreographer: Kathleen Marshall. Associate Director/Choreographer: David Eggers. Music Director: Rob Fisher. Associate Music Director: John Bell. Starring Mikaela Bennett, Santino Fontana, Matthew Hydzik, Norm Lewis, Beth Malone, and Laura Osnes. Featuring Max Clayton, Kimberly Fauré, Shina Ann Morris, Keven Quillon, Brandon Rubendall, Samantha Sturm, Erica Sweany, and Anthony Wayne. Special appearance by Jamie Bernstein. Choral Arts Society, Scott Tucker, Music Director. Scenic Design: Glenn Turner. Lighting Design: Dan Covey. Sound Design: Scott Lehrer. Projection Design: Greg Emetaz. Costumes: Marla Parker. Production Stage Manager: Peter Hanson. Executive Producer: Jeffrey Finn. Associate Producer: Kassie Lewis. Produced by The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.