note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
I’ve watched, mesmerized, as Canadian concert pianist-composer-actor Hershey Felder brilliantly portrayed Frederic Chopin and Leonard Bernstein. Felder is equally spellbinding in his internationally award-winning performance as George Gershwin in “George Gershwin Alone,” currently at the Paramount Theatre through June 10.
Felder becomes transported back in time, reincarnated into these famous composers who died before he was born or whom he never met. Although his portrayals are tributes to their greatness, he doesn’t exalt them - he explains them.
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898 and died in 1937 at age 38, of an undetected brain tumor. Throughout his brief life, Gershwin complained about headaches. Before the performance begins, strains of the notorious Jazz Age heydey fill the theater. Some theatergoers recall those jazz and bluesy, muted sounds.
Silently, Felder enters the stage and sits before a Grand Piano. A large mirror tilted on the background wall reflects his fingers as they fly over the keyboard. Images and photos of the composer’s music and people in his life become highlighted as he narrates.
Theatergoers wax reverential, hushed, as Felder plays Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. The unique concerto premiered in 1924 as part of Paul Whiteman’s experiment of incorporating a concerto-style piece in an all-jazz concert. At the time, some critics said Gershwin would never be a serious composer.
They said the same thing about Bernstein. There are several similarities between them, in fact. Both were born in the US, sons of Russian Jewish immigrants, with humble beginnings. And both were natural-born composers, whose musicianship surfaced during childhood. With Bernstein and Gershwin’s charismatic personalities, good looks, and talent, they attracted the right people’s attention, but also detractors.“The only thing you really remember is criticism,” says Gershwin.
Both men shared one goal - to be famous composers, whose works would be inscribed in the annals of American music history. Felder uncannily resembles Gershwin, whose profile hangs dominantly on the wall. He worked on the play for five years, researching and meeting with Gershwin’s relatives and friends, including the composer’s former lover, Kitty Carlisle Hart, who said she was Gershwin’s date at the 1935 premiere of “Porgy and Bess”. She added she later rejected his marriage proposal.
What wonderful tales Felder shares! Gershwin says he was a “piano pimp,” playing piano for shows.He tells how megaphone-voiced Al Jolson heard Gershwin’s tune, “Swanee” one night and instantly made it part of his Broadway musical. Brassy-voiced Ethel Merman claimed “I’ve Got Rhythm” for her show. A prolific composer, Gershwin wrote more than 1,000 songs, and older brother, Ira, penned the lyrics. “Ira was the thinker,” he says. Gershwin also collaborated with and was in love with Kay Swift, but their romance was ill-fated.
Gershwin’s memorable tunes like “Embraceable You,” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “But Not for Me,” “S’Wonderful,” “Fascinatin‘ Rhythm,” (or as his Russian immigrant dad, Morris, nee Moishe Gershowitz, called it, “Fashion on the River”); “Our Love is Here to Stay,” movie tunes and songs from his legendary “Porgy and Bess,” and “An American in Paris”. They’re all part of America’s musical heritage.
After Felder’s spellbinding rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue,” he resorts to Gershwin’s favorite post-show pastime of sitting at the piano, taking requests, leading an audience sing-along.
By the way, the multi-award winning Felder, (husband of former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell), is charismatic as himself. He and director Joel Zwick, (award winner of “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” “Fat Albert,” and others), teamed up in these fascinating biographies that keep audiences returning, hoping for more.
BOX INFO: One-act, two-hour, one-man show, written,performed by Hershey Felder, directed by Joel Zwick. Appearing to June 10 at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington St., Boston. Performances: June 6,7, at 7:30 p.m.; June 8, at 8 p.m.; June 9, at 2,8 p.m.; June 10, at 1,5 p.m. Tickets, $25-$89. Call 617-824-8400, visit www.artsemerson.org or the Box Office.