A rare thing fortunately: a show with barely a moment of theatrical interest or pleasure. Maestro, written by Eve Wolf, is part concert, part drama, in accordance with the mission of the company she co-founded, Ensemble for the Romantic Century. Although the 19th century is generally considered to be the Romantic century, Maestro is about Arturo Toscanini’s life in the 20th century and follows him through World War II into exile in New York. The world at war and the voices of the major figures of the century’s turmoil are provided by Paul Sorvino in prerecorded snippets.
The legendary conductor’s bio gets lost in the shuffle — there is very little dialogue, and what there is is often unintelligible, partly because of mumbling, partly because of a come-and-go accent. There is only mere mention of his wife and child, while someone named Ada, his lover of many years, remains a mystery to us; her absence, and her Nazi sympathies, were thorns in Toscanini’s side.
Who was this Toscanini? As John Noble portrays him, he is a doddering, self-important fool, lamenting fascism in his native country, with trembling hands and a shockingly awful pasted-on moustache. An actor who has made his deep, resonant voice his trademark (as Denethor in The Lord of the Rings and Sherlock’s father in Elementary), Noble provides none of the presence or passion of the man who commanded the music stages of the world.
Under Donald T. Sanders’ direction, our attention is divided: Toscanini sometimes sits in a chair reading a score (this is not unlike watching paint dry) and other times frequently disappears from the stage for no discernible reason. Sometimes he pretends to conduct us. The audience is cast as the orchestra to be chastised or praised. He does not, in fact, conduct the five musicians (Mari Lee and Henry Wang on violin, Matthew Cohen on viola, Ari Evan on cello, Zhenni Li on piano, and Maximilian Morel on trumpet) who actually play. The music, ranging from Wagner’s “Liebestod” to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, takes far more stage time than the script. If this weren’t confusing enough, we are also simultaneously directed to look in two additional directions: A “news” crawl informs us of the dates of events, such as Kristallnacht, which are then illustrated by projections on the upstage wall. Some of these images are art and some are clips from old newsreels.
Perhaps it was the headline “U.S Severely Restricts Immigration,” which appeared when Franklin Roosevelt sent back a ship filled with Jewish refugees during the war, that made somebody think this baffling show was “relevant.” Or perhaps there was some other reason that eludes me.