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Gorging on the Gershwins
An American in Paris & Perry Beekman

While it's often lamented that George Gershwin's life was cut tragically short, there's no doubt as we sit comfortably a decade and a half into a new century that the legacy of the music he composed on his own and in songs with lyrics by his brother Ira that the oeuvre is still safe from gathering dust. With their collaboration with DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess, recently on Broadway along with Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Lady, Be Good! at Encores!, the work of the brothers is still in the air. This season brings us a stage version of An American in Paris, itself first introduced on film 14 years after George's passing in 1937. And studio albums with the brothers' songs keep appearing; singer-guitarist Perry Beekman's includes numbers heard in Broadway's An American in Paris as well as those included in or trimmed from the film.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
2015 ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

Masterworks Broadway

Good news! The cast album of the Broadway incarnation of An American in Paris, with a big orchestra playing vibrant versions of some of George Gershwin's concert works, and accompanying some endearing vocal performances of songs with lyrics by brother Ira Gershwin, sparkles and feels fresh. Nothing's stodgy or stiff here. Indeed, you might say that the shadow of the classic movie looms smallishly. Depending on how much you wish it would feel and sound a whole lot like the magnificent 1951 film, you'll be charmed or disappointed. This is no clone.

All kinds of Gershwin material has been considered ripe for the picking and parading, with some pieces woven into another number when heard a second time. It's not just a matter of thickening the song stack from the film or picking up numbers recorded and filmed, but not making the final cut. Some such items have been bypassed and other unrelated but established material was chosen.

There's nothing in the obscure, "long lost" category. For example, there's the inclusion of the number that served as the title song for the film Shall We Dance, giving us two same-titled invitations in scores on Broadway this season (the revival of The King and I bringing the other). The Gershwin request to move is ingratiatingly sung by Robert Fairchild (as the titular character) and Jill Paice—and then some lines by her alone, more wistfully, briefly blended into Brandon Uranowitz's also-lonely "But Not for Me." That ballad was first heard in 1930's Girl Crazy, also the source for "I Got Rhythm," first barreled through in a-star-is-born moment for Ethel Merman. While the latter showpiece was included in the film An American in Paris, it was used there as a delightful bilingual teaching moment for star Gene Kelly and a bunch of French kids. Don't look for that or the giant production number treatment heard in the latter-day descendant Crazy for You. Now, it serves as a broader comic opportunity. It begins with its verse ("Days can be sunny, with never a sigh/ Don't need what money can buy...") as a stodgy-sounding, heavily accented Max von Essen is encouraged to get with the tempo and loosen up. ("I'm chipper all the day" he sings later in the verse, but is immediately told via a spoken aside that he sure doesn't sound that way.) Later, it does build, but not to Eiffel Tower heights as an all-stops-out celebratory showstopper. While some may miss the fireworks, it can be seen as a welcome playful twist, a fun and well-executed idea for those who've heard a zillion renditions with mega-brio and brashness. I chuckled at the cheekiness, then shrugged a little, but it's kind of a cute acknowledgement that, hey, we all know the song and the expectation, so why not have some fun?

Robert Fairchild of the dance world reveals a very affecting and unforced singing voice that spins melodies with seeming ease. The thick accent Max von Essen takes on shackles him, not letting us hear the full potential of his stirring and strong voice we've come to know from past performances. He and Brandon Uranowitz lead a brisk "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" that doesn't really ignite as hoped. But, ah, harmony! A refreshing change for the ear is to hear two other well-known pieces with all three aforementioned men's voices blending; "'S Wonderful" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" benefit from this unusual treatment. The notes hit and held please the ear, but the plot points are not sacrificed. It feels like a kind of male bonding as the guys dealing with the ups and downs of love and changing female partners compare notes (in the other sense of the word).

The eventual standard "The Man I Love," which had the distinction of being cut from three different Gershwin shows, finds its latest belated home in this production, given to Leanne Cope as Lise. She doesn't get very torchy or pained, imbuing it with more hope and a gentler manner. Yes, she sounds more convinced that "Someday he'll come along." (In the story she's already engaged to one of the men and being pursued by another, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's madly in love ... yet.)

Although Veanne Cox is third-billed, she is not featured in the singing. And I wish the very competent Jill Paice had more to do, although she shares "Who Cares? (So Long As You Care for Me)" with Max von Essen, the song dropping its old Depression era-specific line about "banks fail in Yonkers" for a substituted one.

Not all of lyricist Ira Gershwin's clever language choices get high polish and relish as sung on several tracks, but the gist of the joy is there. In "Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)"—Buddy G. DeSylva is co-credited for the lyric on this very early piece—there is some evident pleasure in calling Lise by this variation on her name as fervent Fairchild courts her in song.

The concert music and the Entr'Acte (short but sweet) really comes alive in glorious sound. And accompaniments for song are full of creative touches and accents. The program opens with the "Concerto in F" and the album ends with an Epilogue bringing us instrumentally and sentimentally home. In between are other treats, with the "Cuban Overture" particularly exciting and crisp.

The masterful title work, serving as the climactic ballet, is very satisfying here. While a couple of minutes briefer than in other interpretations, it avoids the melodrama and intensity that some conductors have brought to it. It's brighter and silkier, not so grandly majestic. These instrumental pieces treated with affection are present-tense warm rather than reheated relics. Gratitude goes to: musical score adaptor/arranger/supervisor Rob Fisher (who also co-produced the CD with mixing master Scott Lehrer); conductor Todd Ellison; orchestrator Christopher Austin; with additional orchestrations by the estimable Don Sebesky and Bill Elliott; music director Brad Haak; and the very talented Sam Davis for dance arrangements. (It takes a village!)

While An American in Paris's dancing may well be the overwhelming prime thrill in the live-show experience for many, it's gratifying to know there's plenty to savor from the cast album's audio experience. It's a different spin on the movie and the various songs that's definitely worth the spin.

PERRY BEEKMAN
'S WONDERFUL
:
PERRY BEEKMAN SINGS AND PLAYS GERSHWIN

It's a graceful and gregarious kind of Gershwin visit with Perry Beekman singing, playing guitar and his arrangements, leading his trio completed by pianist Peter Tomlinson and bassist Lou Pappas. 'S Wonderful: Perry Beekman Sings and Plays Gershwin is an easygoing affair. His vocals are unassuming and likeable, and suggest a smiling music-lover with an ingratiating personality emerging in every track. If his voice is modest and low-key, his guitar work and musical ideas are mightier.

A guitarist since his youth, he only added singing to his performances a little over 10 years ago. Previous albums have found him playing the standards of Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart. This CD's release is timely, with the Broadway production of An American in Paris opening, and this Beekman bonanza of 15 songs includes a few heard in that stage piece—"'S Wonderful," "I Got Rhythm," "But Not for Me," "Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)"—plus songs heard in the motion picture (such as "Love Is Here to Stay") or dropped from it, plus other Gershwin gems.

While some guitar strumming is laidback as Beekman accompanies himself at times, he really shows his skill when things heat up and pick up speed in meaty instrumental breaks and the two tracks with no vocal ("Fascinating Rhythm" and "But Not for Me"). There's real dexterity on display as well as just a plain old "feel good" vibe. While the guitar is clearly in the star out-front spot, pianist Tomlinson and (less so) bassist Pappas get "stage time" to shine. It's a plus that the introductory verses are sometimes included, not just because they are often mini-treats on their own, but because the singer seems to especially enjoy them with their conversational casualness of musical style and Ira Gershwin's loveable rhymes. And he has particularly good diction that doesn't come off as at all effortful. For example, in "Nice Work If You Can Get It," featured recently on Broadway in a show named for it, you can really hear both T sounds crisply in the last two words of the title line and he seems to take delight in the verse's rhymes of "brings enjoyment" and "for girl and boy-meant."

Here and there, the relaxed and "nice guy" approach shortchanges the material's potential. In "How Long Has This Been Going On?" there's a dangerous shortage of wonder or appreciation about discovering love or regretting having missed it before. And the guitar strumming feels perfunctory. However, "I've Got a Crush on You" is far more sensitive. The other two musicians sit this one out and a romantic and pensive mood are set right away with a lovely and long guitar intro before he begins to sing the verse. The song's set-up of a shy fellow confessing his attraction and hoping it's returned suits him better. Bubbly optimism, exemplified in "Soon," seems even more in his comfort zone. He adds some percussion here with gentle pats on the guitar that make for a nifty additional sound. This track has a good all-over variety of sound and satisfying structure and real groove.

Thankfully, no wearily predictable pattern burdens the selections here. While the tracks are mostly on the long side, sometimes the vocal comes in quite soon, sometimes the musicians take their time setting up the mood, and mid-song instrumental breaks are of varied lengths. In addition to the two instrumentals and the one with just guitar/vocal on "Someone to Watch Over Me," it's just the pianist doing the accompanying. Here, the singer sounds almost boyish without being cloying.

While the song choices avoid any rarities, rarely is there a sense of anything stale or turgid in the warhorses. When Perry announces that "Love Walked In," he seems jolly and it's echoed in his adventurous guitar solo after that, with the other players pulling back. "I Got Rhythm" is sung in a breezy and loose manner, with well-rounded tones, and playing and singing are redolent with the feeling of being carefree and content as the lyric dictates. These guys sound at home with the material and make a listener feel at home with them.


- Rob Lester


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