Theatre Mirror Reviews - "George Gershwin Alone"

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“George Gershwin Alone”

Reviewed by Susan Daniels

Walking down Brattle Street in Cambridge, it’s easy to pick out the groups of people who have just come from “George Gershwin Alone,” the one-man play with music running at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) through July 28. They are the ones singing songs from the composer's vast repertoire of show tunes, like “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Who Could Ask for Anything More,” “Embraceable You,” et al. It’s easy to understand why. As Gershwin, Hershey Felder, a skillful pianist, decent singer, and engaging story-teller, evokes the man and the music of one of the 20th century’s best American composers.

Gershwin spent his life - albeit a short one, since he died at 38 from a brain tumor - composing music, in conjunction with brother Ira’s clever lyrics, that he hoped would be popular and serious, plebeian and classy, ethnic and white bread. Arguably America’s premiere tunesmith, he wrote for the theater, film, opera, and concert stage with an original twist: he fused jazz, klezmer, and the minor key to his prolific output. Though most of his music was readily embraced by the general population, he carried on a life-long, love-hate relationship with the critics, who variously panned and applauded his works. Like Gershwin, Felder combines various structures during his 90 minute (plus a 15 minute singalong encore) performance. Dressed in a black, double-breasted suit with slicked back wavy hair - reminiscent of the elegant 1920’s and 30’s - Felder begins with an animated musical education by describing and demonstrating, on Gershwin’s actual piano, how the composer incorporated a jazz and blues sound with “I Love You, Porgy.” From there, Felder moves smoothly into the biographical elements of Gershwin’s life, including a Jewish-Russian accent. Liberally interspersed within the educational and biographical segments are selections from Gershwin’s impressive repertoire, which Felder performs in an instructional manner before seguing into the concert pianist mode.

This third, and final form, is Felder - and “Gershwin Alone” - at their best. Tinkling the ivories from dozens of glorious songs, Felder connects with the genius of the composer by demonstrating a deft touch as a concert pianist, as well as breathing life into the story behind each tune. He is fresh and engaging with just the right mix of theatricality.

Projections of Gershwin’s self-portrait, along with his paintings of his mother, father, Ira, and his lover/muse, Kay Swift, produce a level of intimacy . . . as though we’ve just dropped into Gershwin’s apartment on 132 East 72nd Street - his last one.

Yael Pardess’s set is modeled after this elegant home, and director Joel Zwick seamlessly moves the action from piano, to sitting area, to desk piled high with musical scribblings, and back to the piano where the show’s heart and soul are enchantingly revealed.

"George Gershwin Alone" (till 7 July)
Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide