Fri June 28, 2002
George Gershwin Alone
Hershey Felder's one-man homage chronicles the life and music of one of America's most successful songwriters.
By Bill Marx
Cambridge, MA –
"I Got Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Embraceable You" are just a scant sampling of the classic popular songs penned by George Gershwin, who died at the age of 38 in 1937. Given such a rich stock of material, including "Rhapsody in Blue" and the opera "Porgy and Bess," Hershey Felder's one-man homage, which has toured the country and played on Broadway, is never less than an earful of jaunty elegance, a reminder that in the hands of genius, Tin Pan Alley is pure platinum.
Felder's approach is generally chronological. He moves from Gershwin's first efforts to bring jazz to Broadway during the '20s to his ambitious attempts at extended composition. Gershwin had the luck to have a terrific lyricist in the family -- his brother Ira. He had the misfortune to want to do more than just churn out great tunes, like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Gershwin wanted to fuse jazz and classical traditions. For this act of chutzpah, Gershwin took his lumps from the critics. The rejection sent him away from New York and off to Hollywood, looking for lucrative opportunities.
When it comes to Gershwin's life, Felder comes up with some amusing stories and even supplies some serious moments. In the late '30s, Gershwin was the subject of an anti-Semitic smear printed in a newspaper owned by the bigoted auto giant, Henry Ford. But much of the biographical material comes off as canned mush, from the Yiddish poppa who didn't quite understand his son's music to the lost love in Gershwin's life. The sweetness isn't helped by Felder's manner, which is likeable but sometimes overripe in the cuddly mode -- his Gershwin is a mensch and a half.
A more serious demerit is that Felder isn't a particularly distinctive singer. Gershwin's tunes call for a level of vocal skill and interpretative panache that is becoming increasingly rare. As a singer, Felder is heartfelt and agile, but he doesn't knock your socks off. And these songs should.
Nonetheless, "George Gershwin Alone" is a treat, especially when Felder tickles the ivories. His rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue" is vivacious and audacious. The staging is economical -- at 90 minutes, the show doesn't overstay its welcome. For an encore, Felder asks for requests from the audience. The result is a relaxing songfest, where the audience can join in the homage.
"George Gershwin Alone" is at its best when the snappy beauty of the music brings fans together.
The American Repertory Theatre presentation of "George Gershwin Alone" runs through August 19, 2002 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, MA. For tickets, call 617-547-8300.