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Review: BERNSTEIN ON BROADWAY at 54 Below By Guest Reviewer Ari Axelrod

Review: BERNSTEIN ON BROADWAY at 54 Below By Guest Reviewer Ari Axelrod

Leonard Bernstein expert Ari Axelrod lends his knowledge to Broadway World in a Specail Report.

Dear readers of Broadway World Cabaret,

There was a special event in New York City this week - an evening of looking back at the works of the legendary Leonard Bernstein. BERNSTEIN ON BROADWAY played 54 Below on Tuesday night, September 27th, curated, directed, and hosted by writer and theater historian Michael Portantiere, with Matthew Martin Ward at the piano as Musical Director. WIth a cast of talented musical theater actors, the evening was made extra special and extra important by the presence of Chita Rivera, herself a legend, and the original Anita when West Side Story first opened on Broadway. The program promised to be a valuable part of the cabaret season, not to be missed.

Except that Broadway World Cabaret had no correspondent available to attend.

Not to be deterred from reporting on the event, this cabaret editor called Ari Axelrod, cabaret professional and Leonard Bernstein authority, and asked him to step in as a guest reporter for the evening. Happily, the creator of A CELEBRATION OF JEWISH BROADWAY said yes before the question was even completed. Below, we invite our readers to see what Ari Axelrod thought and felt during his visit to BERNSTEIN ON BROADWAY.

-- S. Mosher, Editor, Broadway World Cabaret

Ari's Reflections On Bernstein On Broadway

It's Wednesday morning, and I'm currently sitting at my desk, coffee in hand, dog at my feet, and across from me on my mantle sits my favorite photo of Leonard Bernstein. I can hear the picture just by looking at it: a black and white image of him conducting so ferociously, so passionately, that he forcefully removes his glasses from his face, holding them now in his left hand, and in his other hand lies his baton, which extends far beyond his already outstretched arm, his eyes firmly closed, bringing forth every wrinkle in his forehead, his mouth open as he releases what I can only imagine sounds like pure passion, a passion resulting from the music he's pulling from the orchestra.

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." Famous words from the world's most famous Maestro, Leonard Bernstein.

With Hurricane Ian barreling towards Florida as I type this review, with the war continuing to surge in Ukraine, and a country that continues to sow division, going to "Bernstein on Broadway: A Celebration" at 54 Below on Tuesday evening felt like the perfect way to honor my hero's wish to respond to violence by making music.

The show moved chronologically, starting with "Come Up to My Place" from On the Town, performed by Albert Nelthropp and Alex Getlin. This set the tone for the piece. It was engaging, electric, and, with the 4th wall firmly in place, both actors portrayed the characters from the play, rather than being themselves on purpose (how this author defines cabaret); it was clear that this was going to be a night honoring the source material, doing it as written, and doing it exceptionally well. We continued with two more numbers from On The Town ("I Can Cook, Too" and "Lucky to Be Me"), moving next to three numbers from Wonderful Town. We started the Wonderful Town suite with Alex Getlin's performance of "100 Easy Ways," which is the single most extraordinary rendition of that song this writer has ever seen - so specific, so witty, with each note sung and each line acted perfectly; not a missed moment of comedic timing to be found. Brava! Following this masterful work was "What a Waste" and, then, closing the Wonderful Town moment was the gloriously sung "It's Love" featuring Jay Aubrey Jones, Megan Styrna. The program kept moving right along, into the land of Candide with "Oh, Happy We" and next onto one of the most glorious moments of the evening, "Glitter and Be Gay," performed by the spectacular Megan Styrna. "Glitter and Be Gay" has never been so expertly sung and acted in a cabaret room. It was funny, heartbreaking, and luscious to the ears, and all achieved with a marvelous and specific point of view. This was not your typical well-sung "Glitter and Be Gay." This was a well-acted, highly thought-out performance of the iconic song. We ended Candide with "My Love."

Taking a detour from the timeline, we found ourselves exploring what might have been: a put-together of "Build My House" from Peter Pan and "Take Care of this House" from Bernstein's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This resulted in a glorious duet sung by Megan Styrna and Ben Jones. The evening was back on the timeline with West Side Story, starting with "Something's Coming," which Nikita Burshteyn expertly sang, followed by "Tonight" with Nikita and Samanta Rose Cardenas in the singers' seats. Ben Jones continued our West Side Story trajectory with "One Hand, One Heart," singing the first verse with the original Bernstein Lyrics and the second verse with the Sondheim lyrics we've all come to know and love. It was a fabulous way to highlight the evolution of Bernstein's work and his collaborative relationship with the late, great Stephen Sondheim. It also highlighted what a spectacular leader Bernstein was, in that he relinquished the responsibility of lyric writing to someone who, as he admitted, was better at it than him.

The show stopped entirely when the actress who originated the role of Anita in the 1957 Original Broadway Cast of West Side Story took the stage: 10-time Tony nominee and 3-time Tony winner Chita Rivera. The ovation from the audience was so uproarious, so filled with love and devotion, that it was enough to move this writer and his tablemate to tears. Chita Rivera was farklempt from the moment she sat center stage with producer and host Michael Portantiere. While Michael's questions were the usual questions one would expect to hear when interviewing Ms. Rivera, the duo had such an excellent rapport that it felt like she was answering the questions for the first time, and that he was hearing these legendary stories for the first time, as well. Chita Rivera divulged what it was like to meet "Lenny" (she catches herself - "I mean, Leonard Bernstein") for the first time, what it was like to work with the somewhat tyrannical Jerome Robbins, and how defying Jerome Robbins' wishes of keeping the Jets and the Sharks separate led to her meeting her husband, and, later, led to her daughter, Lisa Mordente. The evening ended with the entire company, Michael and Chita Rivera included, singing what some might consider Bernstein's greatest song, "Somewhere" from West Side Story. There was not a dry eye in the house.

It's worth noting that it seemed strange that there was no mention of Leonard Bernstein's Jewish identity, something made all the more bizarre, given that the event fell on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. When doing this piece again (and I do believe this piece should be done, time and time again), it might behoove the creative team to include an instrumental-only selection from Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish, or find a moment to highlight how Jewish music exists at the core of Bernstein's musical language. This will also afford the brilliant Matthew Martin Ward, the evening's music director, an opportunity to fully enter the spotlight, a place he most definitely earned throughout the night.

When (not if) this show is done again, I strongly encourage you, reader, to purchase a ticket. Celebrating Bernstein and being in a room where artists respond to violence by making music more intensely, more beautifully, and more devotedly than ever before is the greatest balm we can give to our souls in today's world. I speak from experience, having had the knots of my soul massaged last night at 54 Below.

Update: A kind and thoughtful note from producer and director Michael Portantiere informs that he mentioned Leonard Bernstein's Jewish heritage when discussing the changing of dates from September 26th to 27th, in order to avoid conflicting with Rosh Hashana. We would like to acknowledge Mr. Portantiere's email, and since the passage mentioning the moment contains praise of Matthew Martin Ward, this editor is choosing to leave the paragraph as is. I hope that Mister Portantiere will accept my personal apology for any perceived slight arising out of this article. --- Stephen Mosher

Find great shows to see on the 54 Below website HERE.

To learn more about our guest reviewer, visit the Ari Axelrod website HERE.

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From This Author - Stephen Mosher

Stephen Mosher is the author of The Sweater Book (a collection of his photography featuring celebrated artists from the entertainment communities of New York, Los Angeles, and London), Lived In Cra... (read more about this author)

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