News Column

'George Gershwin Alone' review: 'S wonderful

June 10, 2013

YellowBrix

June 10--The incomparable genius of George Gershwin lights up Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where author-performer Hershey Felder's "George Gershwin Alone" opened Sunday for a too-brief two-week run. The life story told by Felder-as-Gershwin is a bit thin, but his performance of the music is a delight from beginning to end -- and beyond.

As a celebration, it's almost sheer joy right through a lengthy encore. The play runs less than 90 minutes, but the sing-along encore stretches the show to almost two hours -- which, on opening night included lusty audience participation on standards ranging from "Embraceable You" to "Summertime," as well as two little-known, very funny novelty numbers (one written with Irving Berlin) and a salute to archivist Mike Strunsky -- nephew of George's brother Ira -- and his wife, Jean, a longtime Rep Board member.

What's not to celebrate? Felder's show, which he's been touring internationally since 2000 -- including Broadway and West End runs -- is a cavalcade of immortal standards: "I Got Rhythm," "The Man I Love," "Fascinating Rhythm," " 'S Wonderful," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," not to mention selections from "Porgy and Bess," "An American in Paris" and "Rhapsody in Blue."

Felder, a composer in his own right and creator of solo shows about Beethoven, Chopin and Leonard Bernstein (and director-adaptor of Mona Golabek's "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" in the Rep's next season), is a terrific musician. His fingers fly over the keys with pinpoint precision and Gershwin-like dynamism. He sings well too, following an impressive take on Al Jolson's megaphone voice on Gershwin's first big hit, "Swanee," with a capably comic Ethel Merman on "I Got Rhythm."

He enriches the presentation with enlightening musicology material as well -- demonstrating how a melody grows from a few notes, what a change in an expected progression can do and the effect of a shift from minor to major keys in mid-melody. The revelation of a liquid motif borrowed from Ravel is a particularly nice touch in "George," staged with a light touch and a suitably nostalgic, almost musty look by Joel Zwick.

Felder is a charmingly brash stand-in for Gershwin, relating the story of his much too short life and divulging insights into his craft. But that's also where the show falls a bit short.

It's well worth celebrating the prolific collaboration of George and Ira, but Felder could do that better with a little attention to George's early work with other lyricists on fairly standard Tin Pan Alley material before he turned to more jazz-infused work with Ira.

To hear Felder tell it, you might think "Swanee" was written with Ira (instead of Irving Caesar). Nor is librettist DuBose Heyward credited for his lyrics in "Porgy and Bess" ("Summertime").

The story that emerges is a misleadingly simple path to artistic glory, without the early struggles and outright flops. But it's also charming, touching and comic in Felder's portrayal of the Gershwin brothers' Russian Jewish immigrant parents and affecting in his account of George's death from a brain tumor at the age of 38. And when it comes to the music, "George" is simply glorious.

POLITE APPLAUSE

George Gershwin Alone: Play with music. Written and performed by Hershey Felder. Directed by Joel Zwick. Through June 23. Additional Great American Songbook Singbenift for Berkeley Rep on Monday. Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. One hour, 50 minutes (including sing-along). $29-$77, subject to change. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.

Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic. E-mail: rhurwitt@sfchronicle.com

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