Review: Zach Theatre's Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone

A masterful tribute to the father of the Great American Songbook

Hershey Felder in Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone (Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

What exactly is American music? A century ago, long before rock & roll, hip-hop, or Americana, what constituted American music was much different than today. It tended to be a blending of European classical, Broadway show tunes, minstrelsy, ragtime, perhaps a bit of country and blues, and, of course, a healthy dollop of that relatively new sound known as jazz. Arguably, no one put all these elements together with the flair, finesse, elegance, and panache of George Gershwin. Teaming with his older, lyricist brother, Ira, their collaborations helped form the backbone of the Great American Songbook, creating songs that have endured and indeed flourished for over a century.

Montreal-born, Florence-based pianist, actor, composer, and playwright Hershey Felder does an absolutely splendid turn at bringing the music and the persona of Gershwin alive in his one-man performance of George Gershwin Alone at Zach Theatre through October 1. Felder started his Gershwin enactment 28 years ago and in the ensuing years has also given life to Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, and others.

Opening the presentation pondering the lyrics to "I Loves You, Porgy" from the folk opera Porgy and Bess, Felder weaves a compelling if not strictly linear narrative of Gershwin's life from a precocious street kid on NYC's Lower East Side, the youngest child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, to his untimely death from an inoperable brain tumor at the staggeringly young age of 38. He died a wealthy man to be sure but one who was sadly unaware of the subsequent success and huge influence his music would have in the years to come.

Starting out as a self-proclaimed "piano pimp" cranking out pop tunes on Tin Pan Alley as an adolescent, Felder explains how Gershwin had an extraordinary talent as well as a preternatural knack for bypassing the guidelines of the songwriting establishment in creatively working his way up to Broadway and then on to a career in Hollywood. Along the way Gershwin would compose his grand opus, "Rhapsody in Blue" by the age of 25, Porgy and Bess a decade later, and tone poem "An American in Paris" in between – all three significantly jazz-influenced. It's fascinating to hear Felder, as Gershwin, fill us in on the backstory of these monumental pieces, along with a plethora of the composer's most renowned songs – "Fascinating Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," "The Man I Love," "Summertime," and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" to name but a few – all the while interjecting personal accounts of the composer's life along the way.

Not immune to the harsh criticism that so often accompanies cutting-edge creativity in the arts, Felder explains how despondent Gershwin felt to read the scathing antisemitic invectives of auto tycoon Henry Ford on how Jews were sufficiently cunning to take lascivious African American "jungle" music, injecting it into the popular mainstream to corrupt the morals of unsuspecting (white) citizens; and more personally, in describing Gershwin as a fraud for having come from the Lower East Side, without formal musical training.

Interestingly, I've been introduced to Gershwin's music over the years through my love of jazz, and I'm therefore used to hearing it played with a more syncopated jazz sensibility than was offered here. That said, Felder's rendering of this music no doubt sounds much closer to the way Gershwin himself must have originally played it back in the day of its creation.

While lightly touching on the opulent "Rhapsody in Blue" early in the evening, Felder returns to the masterpiece at night's end and gives us a stunning presentation of the piece in its entirety that drew a spontaneous and uproarious standing ovation. After calming the audience down, Felder then invited us to sing along to a few Gershwin songs of our choosing while he accompanied us on piano: were that not enough, he opened the floor to any questions we might have about Gershwin or himself. That segment was particularly enlightening as he directly addressed topics only glanced upon earlier or not at all, such as the composer's sincere respect and admiration for the jazz musicians from whom he so readily borrowed ideas and inspiration. Certainly each night will offer different revelations depending on the questions asked.

Although Gershwin's music is now an integral part of the American canon, it's not often we get to hear an entire evening of his work, let alone in the presence of an artist who has so thoroughly absorbed his persona. Just getting to hear the wholeness of "Rhapsody in Blue" is well worth the price of admission.

Zach Theatre's Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone

Topfer Stage, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through Oct. 1
Running time: 1 hr., 45 min.

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