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Score’ entertains at the PAC

Brandon Hollihan | Thursday, February 10, 2005

As audience members enter the theater for Score, they see actor Tom Nelis slumped over on a podium. The set around him consists of music stands, stage lights, a bottle of Scotch, a mirror suspended behind him and an abstract, brasslike object lying on the ground.A sound cue – a repetitive tone pulsing through the speakers – brings Nelis’ body to life. But it doesn’t come to life gracefully. Nelis coughs and gasps harshly, his spine contorting as he rises upwards. “Where am I?” he mutters. “Who are you?” he asks upon seeing the audience.The man asking these questions, however, is no longer Tom Nelis. The actor has become the alluring conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, one of the most dominant figures of classical music in the twentieth century. This is no longer a play – it’s a seminar, with the topic of the creative process and how Bernstein gains inspiration with regards to both conducting and composing.The house lights are drawn up in the Leighton Concert Hall at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, and Bernstein asks the audience, who intriguingly become his students, “What is music?” “Art,” responds a woman in the front row. “I can’t argue with that,” replies the teacher. He scans the room for further opinion on the composure of music. “Sound,” answers a man a few rows back. Again, Bernstein agrees. From these modest beginnings, Bernstein takes the audience through the entire spectrums of his life – his relationship with his father, his life-changing debut with the New York Philharmonic – all in the name of discovering where his creativity lies.Throughout the majority of Score, Bernstein displays his emotions at their most extreme. In explaining why artists must have a sense of humor, he moons the audience. Only a few moments later, he becomes very calm when explaining the importance of patience, a quality taught to him by composer Aaron Copland. Even when subdued, Bernstein maintains very little restraint, grabbing a smoke whenever it seems convenient, claiming, “I know it’s bad for me, but I like it too much!” He even shows signs of giddiness when first reaching for the Scotch. His other onstage compulsion is his constant “conducting.” He constantly makes hand gestures coinciding with what he says, and this actually connects with the various tidbits of conducting Bernstein performs when ruminating on past performances – most notably, his conducting of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. He describes the final page of the work with enormous passion, more so than anything else in the hour and a half he appeared on stage.Score is also very physically demanding of the actor portraying Bernstein. With sweat visibly rolling down his face after only 45 minutes, Nelis danced, sang and crawled his way towards Bernstein’s moment of inspiration: the final moments of Mahler’s Ninth, in which Nelis conducts the music as closely as possible to what the real “Lenny” would have done.”[The play] is a juggling act of text, music and the physical action,” Nelis said after the show. “This play was created three years ago, and Anne Bogart, the stage director, told me it was going to take two years to figure it out, and it truly has.”Bernstein’s flamboyant gesturing has a virtuosic explanation, Nelis said.”Unconsciously, Bernstein’s always conducted,” Nelis said. “He riffs on this ‘tranced state’ and he’s not always aware of what he’s doing.”Interaction with the audience is also critical to Nelis’ performance. It was a wonderful moment when a few students came in late to the show, and Nelis called out to them, “Good evening! Leonard Bernstein. We’re gonna talk about art.” Even some of Notre Dame’s cultural qualities were reflected. Bernstein asked the audience if they minded if he smoked. When several audience members replied “yes,” he gave them a wry look and asks, “Is my wife out there?”The script for “Score” is completely adapted from both writings and interviews with Bernstein. “It’s all 100 percent Bernstein, said Nelis. “It was arranged by Jocelyn Clark, an Irish playwright. Bogart gave him 300 pages of manuscript and he whittled it down to 30.”Nelis also resounded the comments about what many guest performers have said in critiquing the Leighton Concert Hall.”It’s a magnificent space,” he said. “Bernstein says in the play, ‘It’s an inspiration to be here with you in this room,’ and it really is an inspiration.”