Loving George

Hershey Felder's charm and charisma carry the superficial yet engaging 'Gershwin Alone'

Did you know that "George Gershwin" is a registered trademark? Yeah, sure, Gershwin was certainly not ashamed to make money as a songwriter, and he was a great composer who deserved every penny he got. But there's something unseemly about the Gershwin estate ostensibly protecting the composer's interests by trademarking the name; not only can granting the right to use the music generate income, but the man himself has been commodified.

Actor-writer-pianist Hershey Felder had to get permission from the Gershwin Family (that's what the group is called, as if it included certain Sopranos) to research and perform George Gershwin Alone, a chatty evening in which Felder portrays Gershwin reminiscing about his career and playing some of his hits. Felder's family-authorized depiction of Gershwin, currently being presented by Arizona Theatre Company, is squeaky-clean, breezy and superficial, and by the end of the short performance, a lot remains unsaid. Yet what we do get is remarkably engaging, witty and entertaining from beginning to end.

Felder doesn't impersonate Gershwin, the man, so much as reproduce him--he's got the cultured, quick, staccato spoken delivery down pat, and he even bears a reasonable resemblance to the composer. His Gershwin is an affable raconteur, given to a boastfulness that's almost endearing. "I did one thing that nobody else would have," he says in explaining the appeal of "Swanee": "I changed the key in the middle of the song."

Well, maybe no Tin Pan Alley songsmith in the 1910s would have done that--even that's debatable--but there is a long history of midsong key changes. Of course, we're listening to a man who freely admits of himself and his brother, "We wanted one thing: to be famous." You have to consider the source.

What Felder is best at is digging into the innards of a Gershwin song and explaining how it works, and why it sounds so Gershwinesque, whether it's a matter of changing to a major key in the middle of "Swanee," or taking a melody up one more step than anybody would expect. Yet this never turns into a dry Ph.D.-candidate lecture-demonstration; Felder loves this music, and he's out to make sure that we love it, too.

If his imitation of Gershwin's speaking voice is right on, Felder is somewhat less convincing as a Gershwin-style pianist--which is not necessarily a bad thing. As Felder mentions during the show, Gershwin tended to pound the keyboard, which you can tell from transcriptions of Gershwin's piano improvisations, even if you've never heard recordings of Gershwin himself. Felder, in contrast, is a more nuanced pianist; he can call to mind Gershwin's swagger without indulging in his brashness. And although his playing on opening night last week wasn't spotless, it was inventive. At one point, he started playing Maurice Ravel's shimmering "Jeux d'eau," not with the usual Impressionist haze, but with pointed, almost syncopated rhythms--Ravel as Gershwin might have played it. And that's even before Felder layered a Gershwin melody on top of it.

What we don't get much of is a sense of Gershwin's life away from the piano. There's just a little bit about his parents (Felder does good Eastern European accents, by the way, and a swell Al Jolson impersonation), a couple of references to Gershwin's working relationship with his lyricist-brother Ira and a short narrative of how his relationship with Kay Swift fell apart. But we'd hardly been informed that there was a relationship with Kay to begin with, and we can't regret the passing of something we know nothing about.

ATC scrambled to haul George Gershwin Alone into town once it became apparent that the company's original musical based on the movie Mask was going to fall apart; it's more an ATC presentation than an ATC production, but the company imported quality goods. The Yael Pardess set design is evocative while using relatively few elements, and director Joel Zwick makes restrained but effective use of it, while more fully exploiting Felder's own abilities as a performer.

The primary show runs only about an hour and a half without intermission, so after the main matter, Felder breaks out of character and leads the audience in a sing-along of Gershwin ballads. It's not as corny as it sounds; Felder has a great rapport with the audience, thinks fast when it comes to improvising and could probably sustain a full evening of this sort of thing. On opening night, he did interrupt the banter to present an infomercial about his companion show, Monsieur Chopin, which ATC is presenting in an extremely limited run Oct. 5-7.

Judging from how effortlessly Felder can engage his audience as Gershwin, I'd be surprised if there are any Chopin tickets left.

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