The recent death of chess whiz and renowned egomaniac Bobby Fischer reminds us that genius, in any field of endeavor, often comes equipped with a heightened level of self-involvement. This is especially the case when that genius dares to reimagine traditional forms and conventions.
The composer and pianist at the heart of George Gershwin Alone, the one-man show now at the Cleveland Play House, was certainly such a person. This production, written by and starring Hershey Felder, has been touring the world for years and has now alighted on the Drury Theatre stage. And while there are some rough spots, overall it does a masterful job — sometimes unintentionally so — of capturing the ego-driven artist in full flower.
Of course, Gershwin is known for many musical masterpieces, including "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris," and the spellbinding opera Porgy and Bess. But details about the composer's life have always been a bit mysterious, aside from his tragic death from a brain tumor at age 38.
Unfortunately, this show doesn't bring us much closer to understanding the man behind those sheets of majestic music. Playwright Felder reduces Gershwin's Russian Jewish immigrant parents to stereotype walk-ons: His mother Rosa was a domineering Jewish mama, daddy Morris an obsequious little man who could never get the names of his son's songs straight. His famed lyricist brother, Ira, is mentioned only in passing.
As a result, we aren't given anyone else's perspective on Gershwin the person, which narrows our understanding of the man. Purposely or not, this narrative approach echoes Gershwin's single-minded focus on making himself famous, the only star at center stage.
But the pop and jazz icon's inspired ear for music comes through loud and clear, as when Felder's Gershwin explains the key change in the middle of "Swanee" that, according to him, no one else would have ever done. And his dissection of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is equally fascinating.
As a performer, Felder looks remarkably like Gershwin, and he affects a rapid-fire delivery that probably approximates how a young Brooklynite on the make would speak. He also does passable impersonations of Al Jolson and Ethel Merman, and brings the audience to a hushed silence when he reads an article written by the virulent anti-Semite Henry Ford that eviscerates Jews for bringing "filthy, African-inspired jazz music" to America.
That glorious music is handled with distinction — if a bit of a heavy hand at times — by accomplished concert pianist Felder. His full renditions of "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Summertime" virtually transport the audience to Gershwin's era, a feeling abetted by Joel Zwick's unobtrusive direction and a set featuring George Gershwin's actual grand piano.
At the conclusion of the show, Felder comes out as himself and leads a sing-along with the audience, tinkling their favorite Gershwin ditties. While this exercise is chummy enough, the preference here would have been to use that time for a deeper look into what made Gershwin and his rhythms so fascinatin'.
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