Tuesday, April 12, 2011

review - George Gershwin Alone

George Gershwin Alone
written and performed by Hershey Felder
directed by Joel Zwick
Pasadena Playhouse
through May 8

Actor/singer/musician/author Hershey Felder's multi Award winning depiction of composer George Gershwin in George Gershwin Alone is now on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse for a limited run through May 8 celebrating a ten year anniversary. Felder fills the space with his virtuoso musicianship and creates such an extraordinary stir and love affair with his public that he is becoming almost as popular as the legendary composer himself.

Born of Russian Jewish immigrants in 1898 Gershwin died much too early in 1937 at the age of 38. With his beginnings in the Ziegfeld Follies and on Broadway, Gershwin, often in collaboration with his brother Ira, also worked for years in Hollywood and in Paris. But as much as his audience adored him, he never hit it off with the critics. Compared to friend Irving Berlin, Berlin was the commercial songwriter, whereas Gershwin remained the true musical artist that was never satisfied, never yielding to limitations. He created opera with Porgy and Bess, which some critics considered too Broadway pop to be called opera, the incredible "An American in Paris" (1928) long before the movie of the same name - by the way, critics called the piece too pedestrian, and of course the brilliantly complex "Rhapsody in Blue". He claimed that everything about him was in his music, and if that is truly the case, he was a genius of overwhelming proportions.

Felder starts at the beginning, telling deliciously humorous stories about Gershwin's parents and close brother Ira, and takes his audience on a detailed musical journey that both entertains and educates as it delves into how and when the compositions came about and, more to the point, how difficult it was to be taken seriously as a musician. He worked for years in radio to become financially secure enough to compose the risky "Rhapsody in Blue". Like actors who work in film and television to support their true artistic endeavors in the theatre, Gershwin was the real thing and started his "An American in Paris" from the ground up by first of all delighting himself by listening to the cacophony of sounds made by taxi cab horns he heard in the streets and next by purchasing musical horns of varied shapes and sizes and fooling around with them until he got the musical sounds he was looking for. Felder has a deep attraction to this man's work that takes possession of his entire spirit, which in turn he is able to thrillingly translate in full to the audience. It is sublime to witness Gershwin and Felder blend together.

Highlights of the evening include: "Someone to Watch Over Me", "Embraceable You", "Fascinatin' Rhythm", "S'Wonderful", "Not For Me", "The Man I Love", "They Can't Take That Away From Me", "Our Love Is Here to Stay", "It Ain't Necessarily So" and of course "Summertime" and other selections from Porgy and as finale to the piece "Rhapsody in Blue". There is now a terrific audience participation segment added to the show that Felder compares to a Gershwin after-party at his Beverly Hills abode where throngs of people would lift their glasses of champagne as well as their voices in song as they gathered around the piano. What would they sing? Why, Gershwin songs, of course!  This segment included some wonderful impromptu solos from the audience on opening night, with a lovely soprano music teacher essaying "Someone to Watch Over Me".

Zwick has Felder utilizing most of the stage ultra-smoothly, but at this stage of the game, it's almost as comfortable for him as if he were inviting us into his own drawing room. Scenic design by Yael Pardess includes some haunting background projections of Gershwin and the people from his much too brief life and career, like composer Kay Swift with whom he had a ten-year affair.
If you haven't seen Gershwin/Felder, go, go, go! If you have, go again, as this may be a farewell of the evening to Los Angeles.

5 out of 5 stars

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