Tom Nelis in Score

(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Tom Nelis in Score
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Leonard Bernstein is well known for having composed the vibrant scores for such musicals as On the Town, West Side Story, and Wonderful Town. Additionally, he was a well respected conductor of classical music. The SITI Company's latest work, Score, focuses most of its attention on that aspect of the artist. This intriguing yet uneven show about the creative process takes a look at the man behind the music and the music that drove the man.

The one-actor play utilizes newspaper and magazine interviews with Bernstein, personal letters, transcripts of the "Young People's Concerts" that he hosted for CBS television from 1958 to 1973, and the artist's music theory writings, such as his 1966 treatise The Infinite Variety of Music. Jocelyn Clarke, who is credited with the script's adaptation, has arranged the material to seem as if Bernstein is giving one continuous lecture, albeit a rather unusual one.

Bernstein is embodied here by Tom Nelis, a dynamic and charismatic actor. Nelis possesses one of those voices that seem made for radio; his diction is crisp and clear, and his amplified speeches are smoothly seductive. The actor suggests Bernstein's persona without trying to mimic the man's physicality. Assisted by director Anne Bogart, the performance is a playful re-imagining of the composer/conductor; at various points, Nelis jumps, tap dances, crawls on the ground, and even moons the audience. (I kid you not.) Many of his gestures are stylized. He often moves his arms in a manner that suggests he's conducting, and he walks with a slightly exaggerated slowness that almost makes it seem like he's floating about the stage. And yet, though Nelis's portrayal is certainly committed and energetic, the actor never quite captures the heart of his subject; the performance lacks emotional engagement.

Additionally, there are several moments within Score that are extremely dull. The lecture structure backfires somewhat when we're listening to Bernstein wax philosophical about the nature of art and music; my mind tended to wander during these sequences, and I noticed a few other audience members nodding off. This was very easy to see, as Neil Patel's scenic design includes a back panel of mirrors tilted to reflect the first few rows of the audience. Additionally, the house lights were kept on for large portions of the play, presumably to make the lecture atmosphere more convincing (lighting design is by Christopher Akerlind).

Score works best when Bernstein shares personal anecdotes or discusses what he likes about certain pieces of music. One of the most engaging segments of the play is his discussion of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. He describes it as "the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up." In the background, we hear the music he so vividly describes -- the excellent sound design is by Darron L. West -- and we wonder, how close to death is Bernstein as he utters these words? It's a question that hangs in the air throughout the entire show.

In the first few moments of the production, we see Nelis/Bernstein rise slowly from a recumbent position to the accompaniment of what sound like the noises made by a life support machine. He lights cigarettes at various points in the show, acknowledging to the audience that he really should give them up. Knowing that the composer succumbed to cancer at the age of 72, it's possible to view Score as the fevered imaginings of a dying man, an artist who wants to share one last lesson with an appreciative audience. Yet the play itself fails to completely connect. While certainly educational, it isn't anywhere near as compelling as Bernstein's own musical compositions.