The rumors of George Gershwin's death have been greatly exaggerated. The great composer is alive and well and currently appearing at the Helen Hayes Theatre, where the new play George Gershwin Alone opened last night.
It is difficult to determine if the actor listed in the Playbill, Hershey Felder, is inhabiting Gershwin, or if Gershwin is inhabiting him. Felder, who also wrote the play, presents Gershwin from the inside out, whether it is in his firm yet imperfect singing voice, or his virtuoso piano playing. So complete is Felder's characterization that, when he appears for the curtain call, he is almost unrecognizable, with a gait and looseness of body that his Gershwin simply does not possess.
Felder leaves few stones unturned in the composer's life. Taking us from his early childhood, when he discovered how important music was to him, to his greatest Broadway successes and his compositions for Hollywood films, by the end, there is little we don't know about Gershwin's work. Demonstrating such a command of the character and an understanding of Gershwin's life, it is particularly unfortunate that Felder hampered the play by introducing a weakness into its very structure.
Gershwin communicates to the audience in two ways: Either speaking directly to them, or by playing the piano. His speeches to the audience consistently fail to get us emotionally involved in Gershwin's life. Gershwin relates humorous anecdotes about his father's misunderstanding of song titles or his mother's interference in the costume design for Porgy and Bess, but almost never do we see him as much beyond a musical genius. Only near the end of the play, when Gershwin's music is criticized in the worst imaginable way do we feel his vulnerability and torment. The rest of the time, there is a cool detachment present, as though we are examining him through a telescope.
But just as frustration is about to set in, Gershwin will sit at the piano, and the entire nature of the play will change. The emotions so frequently missing from the spoken portions appear in full force. When he sings "Someone to Watch Over Me" or "They Can't Take That Away From Me," it is nearly impossible not to be amazed and moved by the man from whom this music sprang. Likewise, his duet with Al Jolson's rendition of "Swanee," his explanation of how he tailored "I Got Rhythm" to Ethel Merman's unique gifts, or his painstaking description of the creation of the powerful duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," make it seem as if musical theatre history is coming alive before your very eyes.
Joel Zwick's direction is mostly unremarkable, but clean, and the era and location of each moment is always clear. Zwick and Felder are both assisted greatly by Yael Pardess's simple but striking set design, which warmly wraps the play in a living room-like area, with only a few paintings, sparse furnishings, and a drapery to complement the piano near the center of the stage. Projections are also used occasionally, to good effect.
Perhaps the most appropriate image to use in describing George Gershwin Alone appears at the end of the play. Gershwin is at the piano, playing a powerful and stirring rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue." Though every thought and feeling Gershwin expresses during the course of the play seems to be passing through his fingers during the piece, he is seated in profile, with his head facing upstage, his face partially concealed from view. He is keeping us at a respectable distance, and as the piece continues, we are lulled into believing we understand him and the music he created.
But when the lights change and Felder's fingers strike the keys for a final time, the moment is electrifying and triumphant, for him and for us. He is expressing himself in the only way he knows how, and we are reminded of how much we don't know about the man who composed some of the most enduring music ever to come from Broadway and Hollywood. Perhaps that is the way Gershwin would have wanted it.
George Gershwin Alone Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Written by Hershey Felder. Directed by Joel Zwick. Scenic design by Yael Pardess. Lighting design by James F. Ingalls. Sound design by Jon Gottlieb. Wardrobe provided by Kenneth Cole. Piano provided by Steinway & Sons. Starring Hershey Felder.
Theatre: Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 5 and younger.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Ticket prices: $65 A $1.25 Facilities Fee will be added to the price of each ticket.
Tickets online: Tele-charge
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Tickets by snail mail: George Gershwin Alone, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998