EmptyGeffen Playhouse, Westwood
Through July 22
George Gershwin's life, as well as his music, was a rhapsody in more than one color, as Hershey Felder movingly illustrates in his one-man show "George Gershwin Alone."
Felder has performed the show more than 2,500 times in the past eight years since it debuted at a small Los Angeles theater, but there's a freshness and vitality to the evening that belies the numbers. Or perhaps it's just Gershwin's music, which nearly always sounds like it's dying to be born for the first time.
Felder is a superb pianist, and his singing is not far behind, so Gershwin's music and songs, not to mention brother Ira's memorable lyrics, are in good hands. This also is a classy performer whose keen intelligence and luminous presence make an immediate impression. For all these reasons, the Gershwin family granted Felder permission to bring George to life onstage, the only performer so honored. Whatever the reason, the show is pure pleasure.
The intricate, thrilling rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue" that closes the show (almost) had the audience standing on its feet cheering. The show's other highlight is a portion of the Gershwin folk-opera "Porgy and Bess" that is part music lesson, part biography and part sublime. Felder takes us into Gershwin's creative process to bring out nuances that ordinarily dance on the edge of consciousness but take center stage here.
These brief sojourns into the creative process offer insight into one of Gershwin's special talents -- the sense of a complex musical tapestry being created out of many disparate elements. This is particularly true of "Rhapsody" and how Felder opens up the piece, with all its jumpy rhythms, surprising key changes, syncopated snarls and emotional turbulence laid bare. The overall design is crystal clear even as we're finally swept away in a crescendo of emotion.
The biographical parts of the show give us a sense of Gershwin's early life and his Russian immigrant family. We move on to the show-plugging days on Tin Pan Alley, his discovery by Al Jolson at a party, his skyrocketing career as a Broadway composer and later a Hollywood tunesmith, and a few choice tidbits from his personal life as well as his dismay over sometimes hostile critical reception. If there's a narrative spine here, it's Gershwin's intense striving to blend the old with the new in all matters musical and give the result as many novel twists as possible. Even his popular songs -- "Embraceable You," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," "I Got Rhythm," "S' Wonderful," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," to name a few we hear -- have an originality and special quality about them that stamps them as Gershwin.
It's debatable whether the audience sing-along that ends the show adds to or detracts from the evening. Felder added it a few years ago, but coming on the heels of the transporting "Rhapsody," there's a noticeable dissipation of emotion. Yes, Gershwin was writing for the masses, but personally I would prefer to float out of the theater on a cloud.
Felder has two more pieces coming up, the first, "Monsieur Chopin," due in August at the Geffen, to be followed by a one-man show about Beethoven. I can hardly wait (and don't anticipate a sing-along with either composer).
GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE
Geffen Playhouse, the Eighty-Eight Entertainment, Samantha F. Voxakis and Lee Kaufman production
Book: Hershey Felder
Music-lyrics: George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin
Director: Joel Zwick
Set designer: Yael Pardess
Lighting designer: Michael T. Gilliam
Original sound designer: Jon Gottlieb
Assistant lighting designer: Tamora Wilson
Performed by: Hershey Felder