George Gershwin Alone

June 6, 2012

in Concerts, Performance Art, Plays

Hershey Felder as George Gershwin

ArtsEmerson
Paramount Mainstage
Boston, MA

Hershey Felder as George Gershwin

Hershey Felder as George Gershwin

Pianist and actor Hershey Felder returns with his show about George Gershwin to the Boston stage. I saw it, and was enthralled, ten (or so) years ago when he first performed it in the Boston area, at the American Repertory Theatre. Since then, he has taken it on the road, and has done it 3500 (or so) times – a long road.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1935) was an immensely talented composer who, in his short life, produced 1000 songs more or less, many as parts of Broadway shows, an opera (Porgy and Bess) and miscellaneous other works including Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.

There are some makings of drama in this story of a great musical talent whose life ended tragically and prematurely.

Much of Gershwin’s life was about the exercise and rewards of genius. He had a wonderful collaboration with his older brother, Ira Gershwin. He also lived a social life, enjoying making the rounds, playing the piano at parties, getting noticed. He was immensely successful.

As well, there were difficulties.

There were some number of bad reviews of Gershwin’s work, though clearly they had no impact on his productivity or ultimate reception.

He was too professionally and socially driven to settle into love. He had a long romance with a talented woman composer, Kay Swift, but it ended badly.

Most poignantly, he had severe headaches throughout his life, and died of a brain tumor at the tender age of thirty-seven.

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

I remember enjoying Felder’s rendition of the Gershwin show when I saw it twelve years ago when it was a fresh and new idea. Felder, then thirtyish, good at piano and at acting, was newly creating an innovative kind of hybrid of musical and dramatic investigation and the energy of doing so was palpable.

Hershey Felder as George Gershwin

Hershey Felder as George Gershwin

In the interim of twelve years, Felder has acted in the show, according to his estimates, 3500 times. That is a lot of performances of the same show.

Frankly, I liked it a lot better twelve years ago. Though Felder is enjoyable to watch and to listen to, there seemed something a bit lifeless about this performance.

This general lack of zip revealed something missing in the text as well. Though Gershwin died young – indeed a tragedy for the world – the narrative did not reveal anything so very dramatic about Gershwin’s life. I do not know if a different emphasis might improved that or not. When I saw the show years ago, the sense of his life – whether one could call it dramatic or not – came through more vividly, but that may well have had to do less with the drama of Gershwin’s life than with the freshness, at the time, of Felder’s involvement with depicting it.

Felder capped off the main part of the program with a full performance of Rhapsody in Blue. I thought it a competent, though not a great, performance, and I wondered what it must be like to play the same piece over 3500 times. Instead of playing all of it, the show might have been better served, to the end of bringing out some of the drama of Gershwin’s life, by a little more narrative elaboration on Gershwin’s relationship with Ira or with Kaye.

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

Several weeks ago I saw Felder in Maestro: Leonard Bernstein and liked it a great deal. The show had dramatic tension and focus, with its core shaped by Bernstein’s professional disappointment and his erotic confusions and inability to perpetuate loving relationships. It was a compelling and focused portrait, replete with passion and angst.

At the very end, Felder held a Gershwin sing along fest, playing songs called out by audience members. He seems to know almost everything Gershwin wrote. It felt, in many ways, like the most lively part of the evening, filled with warmth, good humor and spontaneity.

– BADMan

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