For Hershey Felder's one-man tribute to George Gershwin,entitled George Gerschwin Alone, the University of Houston's Wortham Theatre is transformed into an intimate cabaret. Sophisticated and warmly lit, designed by Yael Pardess, a theater curtain swags obliquely to our right, faded sheet music covers overlay the background, an old desk piled high with musical manuscripts hugs the left, and an antique mirror reflects the polished Steinway's keyboard. The oriental rug turns up at the back corner like a piece of music paper. The piano, naturally, stands center stage. It glows. It will glow even brighter when Mr. Felder begins to play.
As the third segment of his The Composer Sonata (the dramatic first movement highlights Beethoven, the romantic second swirls through Chopin, and the coda fourth centers on Leonard Bernstein – others of his one-man shows have been about Irving Berlin and Franz Liszt), Felder assumes the role as Gershwin, a first-person account. He makes a suitable approximation, lithe and dark, except for that thick mane of hair, which Gershwin never had. But he's got energy and drive, a lively sense of self-worth, a felicitous musical accomplishment, and an infectious desire to entertain – all primary Gershwin traits.
As a bio, however, the show is Hollywood-tinged and rather false, much like the posthumous movie bio in 1945 with Robert Alda and Alexis Smith. You'd think that Felder, a noted composer/pianist, could weave Gershwin's aborted life (he died in Hollywood, aged 38 in 1937, from an inoperable brain tumor) with a bit more subtlety and deftness. Now, it's mostly deaf, racing through his early Tin Pan Alley years as song plugger and recorder of definitive piano rolls, almost dropping all of his Broadway hits and misses – of which there were many (Of Thee I Sing which won a Pulitzer Prize nary rates a mention!), and conflates his two stays in Hollywood into one. Yes, “Swanee” (1919, with lyrics by Irving Caesar) was a huge hit when finally recorded by Al Jolson in 1920 and propelled Broadway producers to take a chance on this young songwriter to compose an entire score, but his career had already been launched. Gershwin never again had such a hit tune as “Swanee,” to his eternal chagrin. He wanted to write a hit. He succeeded.
His parents were not the “mittle european” schlubs so portrayed, and Stravinsky did not attend the February 12, 1924, premiere of Rhapsody in Blue. His infatuation with a young Paulette Goddard, wife of Charlie Chaplin, is dropped into the scanty narrative, but is given more weight than anyone at the time thought about it. His relationship with the married Kay Swift, his musical assistant during Porgy and Bess (1935) and beyond, might have been deep and fulfilling, but obviously went nowhere.
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While we stumble through Gershwin's life – his 1934 weekly radio show on CBS is probably something most people aren't aware of – Felder lets us in on the art of composition, Gershwin style. The show even begins with a quiet discussion of the interval. His interpretation of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from Porgy is swift yet illuminating, a Music 101 romp. When he accompanies a recorded orchestral part of the opera, and belts out the stirring duet, magic occurs. There are samples from the great Concerto in F, An American in Paris, and a healthy swath of Rhapsody in Blue that appropriately ends the show with a stirring ovation. (Rhapsody is played a trifle haltingly, with more sentiment than sweep usually heard from this classic, but its visceral impact on an audience is tremendous.) And the Paris solo brings a repugnant editorial rebuke from Henry Ford about Jews in music, as repellent as anything by Wagner.
But in between the showstopper classical works are those glittering classic songs, with their impeccable lyrics by brother Ira, which form the epitome of the American songbook, rhythmically complex, witty, full of “American pep” and harmonic counterpoint like “Fascinatin' Rhythm” and “S'Wonderful,” or hauntingly plaintive like the ballads “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” and “But Not For Me,” and other classics. Felder's no crooner like Michael Feinstein, but neither was Gershwin, yet the numbers are spellbinding, and the piano arrangements are stunning. The encore section is the show's highlight, as Felder wraps us up in Gershwin's world by having a lusty sing-a-long.
There are thousands of quotes about Gershwin, but I like Irving Berlin's summation: “We were all pretty good songwriters, but Gershwin was something else. He was a composer.” Easy-going and awfully pleasant, the intermissionless George Gershwin Alone flows by. We don't learn anything much about the genius of Gershwin, but Felder, in love with the works with unabashed fervor, leaves us singing in high spirits, if a bit nostalgic that they don't write 'em like this anymore.
George Gershwin Alone. Through June 21. Alley Theatre at the University of Houston, 4116 Elgin. Purchase tickets online at www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $26- 69.