Review: “Maestro” at The Duke on 42nd Street

Pictured: John Noble. Photo Credit: Shirin Tinati

Pictured: John Noble. Photo Credit: Shirin Tinati

  • Max Berry, Contributing Critic - New York

“Dear God, they’re in America now.”

John Noble uttered this line with brilliance and terror as the world-renowned maestro, Arturo Toscanini. It was a line that was not only spoken in response to the frightening growth of the Nazi party during World War II, but seemed to reach through time and space and clutch our hearts with a grip unyielding in its accusations and unmistakably clear in its call to action. The line sang through the piece like one long drag of a bow across the strings of a violin, poetic and artful in nature, but persistent in it its need to be heard.

Such a tone was unexpected, yet welcomed, in ERC’s “Maestro”.  Though, this most likely came from my initial ignorance of the subject matter. I expected a simple play about the life of a larger than life Maestro. I did not know the importance of when he lived and worked or how his art enabled people to express the inexpressible. While we do get a story primarily focused on Toscanini’s life, it is not a simple biography where we are taken step by step through the highlights of his career. Rather, we are told his story through letters and telegrams he is sending to his lover and through orchestra rehearsals where Toscanini brilliantly speaks as if the audience is the orchestra itself. “Maestro” does not assume you know his story (though, most of the audience did) but it is not oversaturated with exposition either. It paints a picture of a complex individual through dialogue, music, and projections. By the end of the show, I found myself longing to learn more about the fascinating man I had just spent two hours getting to know.

From the moment Noble stepped onstage as the passionate Toscanini the room was his. We were at the mercy of his conductor’s wave, ready to sing whatever song he wanted us to sing.  Noble played the role with great gravitas and humility. I felt his love for music, his country, and of course the lover to whom he was mostly speaking. There is something about watching someone totally give themselves to their art that tugs on the deepest of heartstrings and Noble took those strings and plucked away. Though, Noble is not the only one in “Maestro” with masterful musicianship. The string quartet, piano, and trumpet player kept the goosebumps on my arms for the whole two hours. Playing classical music from the 19th and 20th centuries , I could have listened to them play for two hours more. While sometimes accompanying Toscanini as he told his story, very often they played on their own, acting as an interlude.  The music and projections paired together perfectly, acting as the needle and thread weaving between scenes.

Maestro is sneaky but clear in its call to action. It pulls you in with the music and Eve Wolf’s words and you don’t realize what it’s saying until you’re already invested. But once you do, it hits like a ton of bricks. Toscanini was very vocal in his opposition of fascism and the growing Nazi Party during World War II and he expresses his anger and frustration throughout. We are shown pictures and footage of Hitler and Mussolini barking their messages of hate and evil. We see propaganda, crowds of people marching and cheering on these monsters. We see him flee a country that more and more is threatening vocal opposition with death. Though unfortunately, as expressed in that bone-chilling line, once in New York, he finds that those hateful people are harder to escape from than he thought. We are shown videos of excited families hopping onto a boat set for America, ready to be free of the chains and yet they are turned away.

“Maestro” puts the mirror up to the audience and demands that they see the reflection of our world within the world of the play, yet it still allows for you to come to that conclusion on your own, to be moved by the music and the poetry and the visuals. By the end, you don’t have to be told to make a change, you want to make a change. Lots of theatre strives for this outcome and Maestro was right in tune.

 This is how art makes change. And lord knows we need it. Because dear God, they’re still in America now.

“Maestro” was produced by Ensemble for the Romantic Century and performed at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036).

It was written by Eve Wolf and directed by Donald T. Sanders.

It features: John Noble, Mari Lee, Henry Wang, Matthew Cohen, Ari Evan, Zhenni Li, Maximilian Morel, and Paul Sorvino

It features scenic and costume design by Vanessa James, lighting design by Beverly Emmons and Sebastian Adamo, projection design by David Bengali, and  sound design by Bill Toles.

It runs January 3rd-February 9th.

Ticket info can be found here:

https://tickets.dukeon42.org/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=9650