George Gershwin Alone (4.5 Stars)
by Johnny Plankton
ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage presents Hershey Felder's George Gershwin Alone. Performances May 30 thru June 10, 2012 at the Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street, in Boston's Theatre District. Starring Hershey Felder; Directed by Joel Zwick; Written by Felder and Zwick.
Hershey Felder's one man show, George Gershwin Alone, brings the life and music of Gershwin to Boston in the intimate setting of the recently restored Paramount Theatre at Downtown Crossing with a terrific musical performance of one of the American Songbook's most significant and prolific contributors. The one man show chronicles the career of Gershwin from the first magical moment as a ten-year old boy playing stickball hearing his first violin performance of another ten-year old boy through his musical career and premature death at age 38 from an undiagnosed brain tumor. He and his brother Ira left behind a musical legacy that has been nearly unmatched in both popular music and theatre.
Felder tells the story in the first person as Gershwin in a living room setting onstage with the piano at the center, a composing desk off to the side and a comfy chair for guests at the far end of the stage. The stage is adorned with large photos of Gershwin and sheet music and phonograph record cover photos of his works, including Porgy and Bess and Al Jolson's Swanee. A full-sized screen at the back projects pictures of subjects that Gershwin/Felder is discussing during the performance. Felder weaves a combination of storytelling of highlights and disappointments of his life and career (including some ugly anti-Semitic press for bringing "jungle music" to popular culture and the end of his love affair with composer Kay Swift) with impressions of his parents, collaborators, and contemporaries - and music.
Felder conducted exhaustive research in developing the show, speaking with family members, biographers and Gershwin intimates, and purchased the rights to do the show from the composer's estate. Felder developed the persona for Gershwin by using old radio archives to recreate Gershwin's voice; and used songs, letters and conversations to recreate the life and times of the composer. Feldman's delivery is often reminiscent of a vaudeville era Borscht Belt comedian, or for a modern reference, like a Martin Short character from the Second City TV or Saturday Night Live shows of older, schticky Jewish entertainers.
But it's the music that drives the show. Felder is an accomplished and spirited piano player as brilliantly evidenced by his full throttle rendition of Rhapsody in Blue at the show's faux close. Those who don't think they're familiar with Gershwin's work will be surprised at the number of songs they actually are familiar with, beginning with "Swanee," his first hit (at age twenty) recorded by Jolson. He also details how he conceived "Rhapsody in Blue," (my personal favorite piece of American music) on a train ride to Boston from New York.
Those expecting a piano recital of Gershwin's greatest hits may be a little disappointed, as Felder instead plays only snatches of some tunes while explaining how he came up with the musical structure or melody of the piece in lieu of note-for-note performances, but there are plenty of full on numbers including "The Man I Love," "Someone To Watch Over Me," "Embraceable You," "Fascinating Rhythm," "I Got Rhythm," "S'Wonderful," and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" in addition to selections from "An American in Paris" and of course, "Porgy and Bess."
The show appears to close with a masterful piano-only version of "Rhapsody in Blue," before Felder returns and engages the audience in a sing-a-long with three or four Gershwin favorites, something that the composer did regularly after his performances. He also randomly chose a member of the audience to sing on stage, and on this night brought up a trained and talented singer which he swore "was not a plant in the audience." The audience responded with a rousing standing ovation at both the conclusion of the show and after the sing-a-long. You don't have to be an aficionado of Gershwin's music to appreciate this show, as the man and his lyricist brother were one of the most brilliant songwriting teams America has ever produced and Felder is a terrific singer and player.
GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE
“Stunning, dazzling, sheer genius.” -New York Daily News
From Broadway to London’s West End and theatres across the U.S., this celebrated one-man play about the legendary American composer who ""made a lady out of jazz"" now returns to Boston! In the award-winning George Gershwin Alone, internationally-acclaimed actor, playwright and Steinway concert artist Hershey Felder renders an intimate portrait of the legendary composer that provides a personal glimpse into Gershwin’s early years, his personal life and his artistic genius. The evening is packed with many of Gershwin’s most famous pieces, including “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and a complete performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.""
“A truly amazing, must-see performance!” -Chicago Sun-Times
About Hershey Felder:
Hershey Felder is a composer, actor, playwright, director and concert pianist. Since 1999, his works George Gershwin Alone ; Monsieur Chopin; Beethoven, As I Knew Him and Maestro: Leonard Bernstein have appeared on Broadway, the West End, regionally and internationally. Winner of the 2007 Los Angeles Ovation Awards, Best Musical and Best Actor for George Gershwin Alone. In April 2012 he will direct the premiere of Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse.