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Stairway to Paradise Is a Glimpse at Gershwin's Early Genius

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The Setup: Before George Gershwin became George Gershwin, what did he sound like? That's the question that gets rhapsodically answered in the latest cabaret from Bayou City Concert Musicals. A prodigy, as a kid he astonished his non-musical family by sitting down and playing the piano when it was ordered for his older brother Ira to take lessons. He'd been practicing at a friend's house and had taught himself to play. It changed his life, and the sound of America. As a brash 15-year-old, he dropped out of high school to become the youngest "song plugger" on Tin Pan Alley, NYC's famed street of music publishers. His jazzy, deft piano playing was his ticket to fame. Soon, his songs were interpolated into Broadway shows, and he was on his way. No one's music sounded like Gershwin's, and even though his apprentice efforts are works in progress, there are plenty of glimmers of what would coalesce only a few years later into his distinctive, bluesy and syncopated melodies.

The Execution: Gershwin is the cornerstone of the American songbook, along with Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, and it's fun to hear his rare early work (1916-1922) in the intimate setting conjured by BCCM and performed by some of Houston's leading musical performers. In the Performance Center of the Ensemble Theatre, tables are spaced around the stage. Like any good nightclub, a bar is set up in the back. The emcee is BCCM's artistic director and Alley Theatre veteran Paul Hope, who leads us through the bio and backstage dish with gleeful charm. Pianist extraordinaire Rob Landes supplies the missing orchestra, and a raft of talented performers supply the vocal stardust. In this edition, the highlights include Susan Shofner's rendition of "I Was So Young," Ross Chitwood with "Nobody But You," Grace Givens in the sultry "Do It Again," and Landes's spiky version of "Walking the Dog" (although that song's from Gershwin's next decade of masterpieces).

(February 21, 7:30pm, Bayou City Concert Musicals at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-465-6484.)

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