Where's the Market Theatre when you need them? Their intimate, elegant space that was so briefly a part of the Boston/Cambridge theatre scene would be the perfect spot. How lovely to while away an early summer's evening there with a gifted pianist and a couple of singers ambling through the Gershwin catalogue. No, make that several evenings. One would barely get us started.
Anything to save us from Hershey Felder, a bumbling pianist, barely adequate singer and bizarre Gershwin impersonator. You can avoid him now through July 7th at the Loeb Drama Center where he is appearing in George Gershwin Alone under the auspices of the A.R.T.
This one man (and a piano) show, written by Felder and directed by Joel Zwick, is described as "a theatrical musical composer imagination." By all reports, the show was a sensation in LA and wowed them in Palm Beach. To be honest, many at the Harvard Square opening seemed to be enjoying themselves. And I must applaud the audience for their prodigious knowledge of Gershwin (brother Ira, that is) lyrics during the sing-along (you've been forewarned. It's the encore after "Rhapsody in Blue").
I'm afraid I side with those perplexed New Yorkers who couldn't understand what this show was doing at the Helen Hayes Theater for some 100 performances last year besides keeping By Jeeves at bay. Not only can't Felder hold a candle to countless other pianists and singers who've done this material, but the patter that holds it all together (despite a go-ahead from the Gershwin estate) doesn't always manage to stick to the facts.
A striking photo on the program cover suggests that Felder bears more than a passing resemblance to George Gershwin, but it doesn't match what we see onstage. This now slightly stocky performer boasts a full head of hair, not styled by any 1930s barber, an ill-conceived "period" outfit supplied by Kenneth Cole and an accent that defies description. The real George Gershwin can be seen on film, including Harold Arlen's home movies. He speaks on much-reissued recordings of his radio show "Music by Gershwin" that are in the public domain. He will even appear in your home to perform his piano roll version of "Rhapsody in Blue" when you pop it into your CD player.
The conceit of this piece is that we are in the living room of Gershwin's mind. According to what Felder has devised, Gershwin is not only eager to demonstrate his musical genius but can't be stopped from sharing with us how unloved, unlucky and underappreciated he is. Too bad Felder doesn't subscribe to the theory that Gershwin liked to play at parties so he wouldn't have to talk to people.
The scenic design (Yael Pardess), lighting design (J. Kent Inasy) and sound design (John Gottlieb) make effective use of the Gershwin memorabilia Felder has collected over the course of his years of research. We are treated to a kaleidoscope of images and recordings as we dip - not too far - into the Gershwin archive. It's decidedly to Felder's disadvantage that he never goes beyond the most often performed material, thus managing to conjure up so many unflattering comparisons.
The first few notes of more than one song cued my mind to summon the voices of Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire who I remember well from the LP I used to play over and over again of the 1971 CBS television special S'Wonderful, S'Marvelous, S'Gershwin. And, for my money, I'll take Sting any day over the audience member who gamely sang the verse to "Someone to Watch Over Me" all by herself.
George Gershwin Alone, has been extended through July 28th at the American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 54 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. Tickets available at the Loeb Drama Center box office, by phone at (617) 547-8300 or online at www.amrep.org.