It's A Gershwins' Gusher!
By Dave Irwin
ARIZONA THEATRE COMPANY'S The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm is a great show, full of marvelous singing, dancing, costuming and staging. But be forewarned--anyone looking for George and Ira Gershwin, their lives, or their era in this production will be disappointed. The show has as much to do with the Gershwins as Cats does with the literary career of T.S. Eliot.
Fascinating Rhythm is a sequence of 28 songs from the Gershwin Brothers--music by George, one of America's best composers in the first half of the 20th century, and lyrics by wry sibling, Ira. The music is presented in song and dance of varying proportions: Some numbers are all song ("They Can't Take That Away From Me"), some are instrumental dance numbers (the opening version of "Fascinating Rhythm," later reprised as a vocal), and most mix deft staging and powerful singing ("I Love To Rhyme," "Embraceable You"). There is no narrative or dialogue--indeed, no context--to tie the production together at all, other than the fact that we have a series of Gershwin tunes.
Ira is the only one of the two who would recognize why the brothers were getting a royalty check from this show. The songs have been massively rearranged to "update" them and fit the requirements of current tastes (or so the producers of this Broadway-bound extravaganza hope). One doesn't normally think of Gershwin music done with funky, double-time electric bass or as a folk-country ballad. The vocal histrionics of the reworking recall the heavily embellished styles of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.
The goal of landing on Broadway explains everything about this show. Conceived by director Mark Lamos and vocal/musical arranger Mel Marvin, the show is really about the careful construction of an entertainment package. It was first presented in 1996 by the Hartford Stage Company, where Lamos, ATC's artistic director in 1979-'80, was artistic director from 1980 to 1997. From there the show was revised extensively...just how extensively is perhaps evident in that early publicity promised more than 50 tunes, with that unwieldy number cut almost in half for the production now on stage. Additional arrangers were also brought on board to punch things up.
Clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission, the show is tight and well-paced. Big production numbers ("Sweet and Low Down," the title tune) alternate with smaller solos/duets ("The Man I Love" intertwined with "Soon," or "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off"). Since each song is presented as a one-act, the minimalistic stage design by Michael Yeargan allows a number of transitional possibilities, from simple fade-outs to a sort of cinematic wipe as angled pieces of scenery open and close, iris-like.
Of special note is the exceptional lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer. Her use of color, movement and three-dimensional effect is a textbook example of how lighting can set the tone and beautifully enhance each number. Whether reviving the audience from a sultry, dimly lit piece with vibrant blues and oranges, or understating the mood with shady gray pastels and high-key spots, Eisenhauer takes the visual pleasures of the show to a higher level.
The 10 cast members are tight and taut in both their singing and dancing, each shining briefly in solo/duet spots. Kena Tangi Dorsey is enthralling on "Cousin In Milwaukee" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," while Jillian is incredibly cute on "Little Jazz Bird." Especially creative staging highlights "Just Another Rumba," with Sara Ramirez as a patient and Chris Ghelfi as her shrink, both overcome by the urge to dance; and the ensemble typing pool of "I Love to Rhyme"/"I Got Rhythm."
On the other hand, the Gershwins are probably spinning in their graves at the thought of "Slap That Bass" as a crotch-grabbing, S&M attired song, complete with a bull's-eye on Dorsey's Lycra-clad butt. The choreography (by David Marques) plays blatantly to sexuality: On the second number, "I've Got A Crush on You," Ramirez seductively strips her well-muscled partner to the waist; and there are implied homosexual pairings as men look longingly and touch each other in several production numbers. And Ira likely never expected his line about "joys untasted" in "Isn't It A Pity" to refer to a lesbian encounter between Ramirez and lithe blonde Karen Lifshey. Anyone familiar with contemporary theatre or even a Vegas revue will not be shocked or surprised, but those looking for a nostalgic revival, especially seniors of the Gershwins' era, are likely to get more than they expected, or perhaps wanted.
Alas, the road to Broadway is paved with good intentions. In its corporate compromises and dedication to becoming a money machine, The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm has found the Gershwins themselves expendable. The songs are taken out of context and so reworked to fit the perceived mold of what the public requires of a hit show that in some cases they were barely recognizable. In fact, the source subject could have just as easily been punk music to create The Sex Pistols Amiable Anarchy. That would have been easier, actually, since it would have eliminated all those pesky melodies and chord changes.
The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm is a delightfully fun show, visually stunning and consistently entertaining. But it also reduces the Gershwins themselves to a gimmick, shamelessly trading in on their cache. It certainly shouldn't be mistaken as an homage.
Arizona Theatre Company's The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm, directed by Mark Lamos, continues Tuesday through Sunday through December 26 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Show times vary (no performances on December 24 and 25). Tickets range from $24 to $33, with half-price adult tickets and $10 student rush tickets available for all performances one hour prior to curtain at the ATC box office. Group discounts are also available. For information only, call 884-4877. For reservations, call 622-2823.
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