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Chicago by John Olson

George Gershwin Alone

Also see John's review of Sweeney Todd

Just after the lights go up on Gershwin (played by author Hershey Felder) at his piano, the composer explains how he constructed the hook of "I Loves You, Porgy." The melody begins as a major arpeggio (a 1-3-5 on the words "I loves you"), but instead of completing it a full octave from where it began as one might expect, he goes to 7, a half-tone short of the octave, then to a full tone above the octave so that "I loves you, Por-gy" is sung 1-3-5-7-2. He contends that the unexpected change in direction is what makes the line so arresting. If this bit of music theory flies by you, it doesn't matter. You'll be taken by the enthusiasm with which Gershwin explains his own work and the way in which he seems to be in awe of it as if it were composed by somebody else. In just a few short lines and musical phrases we learn a lot about Gershwin the character. Music seems to flow from him uncontrollably. For the next hour and a half, in the one-man show Felder has performed on Broadway, in London's West End and in several engagements around the U.S., George Gershwin will appear to be physically unable to stay away from the keyboard for more than a few minutes at a time.

Felder is an accomplished concert pianist, so he's able to perform this central aspect of Gershwin's character quite literally. He can play complex material ("Rhapsody in Blue" closes the show) as well as simple, catchy songs like "Swanee." As if to prove Felder is actually playing the piano (but more importantly to be able to view his physical technique) a mirror hangs above the piano so we can watch his hands on the keyboard. After years of seeing stage and film actors portray instrumentalists with their playing obviously faked, it's quite astonishing to see a skilled actor so able to perform the unique physical/musical demands of his character.

An hour and a half is a short amount of time in which to tell a life story, even a life so tragically short as Gershwin's, but Felder's script covers a lot of ground. After the introductory bit on "I Loves You, Porgy," Gershwin tells his life story in generally chronological order, giving bits about his family and relationships, a good share of show business anecdotes and a few doses of music theory. He doesn't explain how we happen to be with him this evening. Are we to imagine we're in attendance at one of the post-show parties he liked to give? After he describes his own death, we might imagine he has returned to life to give a lecture on his life and work, hosted in a ghostly replica of his home. His demeanor is friendly and animated, but he remains a bit guarded, as if he would likely be if actually addressing an audience of strangers.

Gershwin's words reveal little about his emotions, but Felder effectively uses vocal inflection and body language to show the composer's feelings. We understand his disappointment over the unenthusiastic critical reception to some of his more ambitious works, like the opera Porgy and Bess, and the orchestral piece An American in Paris. The profound sense of loss after the end of his relationship with Kay Swift and the deep hurt upon reading a hateful, anti-Semitic criticism of his work written by Henry Ford are unmistakable even as Gershwin tries to appear strong while telling the stories.

The production design, with sets by Yael Pardess and lighting by Michael Gilliam and Christine Griffith, contributes much to the emotional content of the piece. Black and white photographic projections are brought in subtly at key points of the narrative. We've just heard Gershwin's story about his parting with Kay and we're listening to him sing and play "They Can't Take That Away From Me" before we notice Kay's photo on the screen and realize the song is for her. Later, as George explains how his brother and lyricist Ira completed their last collaboration after George's death, Ira's portrait is gently projected in the background while George performs "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Cover pages of sheet music are hung on the set, with soft spotlights highlighting songs as they are sung or discussed in the narrative. Joel Zwick (director of the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding deserves much credit for bringing together a complete package of stagecraft and shaping Gershwin/Felder's anecdotes into an involving dramatic arc.

Above all, there is the music. While Felder has Gershwin apologize that composers are never good singers, he need not do so for his own singing. He's fully invested in the emotion of Ira Gershwin's lyrics and has audience on the edge of their seats for ballads like "Embraceable You" and "The Man I Love." He knows how to act these songs and modulate his volume and timing for dramatic effect, without ever losing sufficient motivation for his choices.

George Gershwin Alone is an at times joyous, at other times bittersweet reminder of the enormous contributions of the composer and the enormity of our loss at his early death (at age 38), as he was developing even more maturity as a songwriter and composer. It makes us grateful for the perseverance of great artists like Gershwin, who persevere even without the recognition and affirmation they deserve in their lifetimes. George Gershwin Alone provides the pleasure of an all-too-brief retrospective of Gershwin, a sense of the joy he had in creating the music for us, and the fantasy of being able to give that joy back to him in person.

George Gershwin Alone is playing at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street, Chicago, through Sunday, October 24, 2004. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 & 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 & 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $37.50 to $45.00 and are available at the Royal George Theatre Box Office (312) or through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com, 312-902-1500).

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-- John Olson



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