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Hershey Felder is brilliant in his personification of composer Leonard Bernstein

Hershey Felder is tranformed inlegendary composer “Maestro: The Art Leonard Bernstein.”

Hershey Felder is tranformed into the legendary composer in “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein.”

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◆ Through Dec. 30

◆ Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted

◆ Tickets, $55

◆ (312) 988-9000;

Updated: December 13, 2011 8:51AM

The guy is a genius. And if you are wondering who is being labeled as such — the title figure in “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” or Hershey Felder, the actor, pianist, writer, and phenomenal serial portraitist of great musicians from Beethoven to Gershwin — there can be only one answer. Both.

Leaving the Royal George Theatre on Wednesday night I overheard two veterans of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as one turned to the other and exclaimed: “I still remember making that recording with Bernstein, and this guy just nailed him.” That is high praise, indeed. And accurate. Felder uncannily captures the brilliant, effusive, mercurial, overbearing, exuberantly needy, tortured, multi-talented Bernstein to perfection.

The “genius” of Felder’s portrayal has little to do with impersonation. Rather, it lies in the entire structure of his musically enthralling, emotionally compelling, intellectually challenging, endlessly bravura, self-penned one-man show that unfolds like a tightly constructed concerto during a seamless, uninterrupted one hour and 45 minutes. It is a production that ideally evokes the spirit and content of Bernstein’s “teach-athons.”

In an act of stylistic ventriloquism, Felder echoes Bernstein’s memorable television sessions and frequent explications from the conductor’s podium. The only difference is that in this case he reveals his own life and work and musical passions. And then there is another amazing thing: As you enter the theater, the real Bernstein, in his prime, is seen on video as he analyzes Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. But then Felder appears and slips into the man’s skin and psyche, and sits at the piano in an act of sublime transformation. He magically becomes our Bernstein.

As Felder’s Bernstein tells us, it all begins with a solitary note. (The line is reminiscent of one from a Sondheim musical that starts, “a blank canvas,” and this evocation of Bernstein’s “West Side Story” lyricist could hardly be accidental.) He then explains — in the mode of both a composer and conductor — how those first notes and crucial musical sequences connect to Jewish chants, or Beethoven (Bernstein’s “God”), or Wagner (master of love and death, and unapologetic anti-Semite), or Mahler (Bernstein’s soulmate), or Aaron Copland, and to the fabled conductors who were his mentors and surrogate fathers. (His own father was the source of lifelong anguish.)

As for Felder’s reenactment of a crucial lunch with conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos that climaxes with the proffering of an oyster — well, it might just be the most erotic moment you have seen on any stage. It also is a key to Bernstein’s tragic marriage to Felicia Monteleagre that was so fraught with guilt and punishment.

To cut to the chase: You will walk out of the theater realizing you’ve barely breathed for the duration of this astonishing musical and theatrical transmigration of souls.

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