There are a lot of one-person, biographical shows out there, but few of them possess the sheer entertainment value and impressive pedigree of Hershey Felder’s George Gershwin Alone, now onstage at the Asolo Rep’s Mertz Theatre.
Felder and Gershwin in George Gershwin Alone.
Although actor-musician Felder, who also wrote the script for this look back at the life of one of America’s greatest composers, has performed it hundreds of times, you’d never know that from the zeal with which he takes the stage. Starting with Gershwin’s childhood in New York and continuing through his too-early death in 1938, Felder takes us through not only the highlights and lowlights (it’s easy to forget, today, that the legendary George was often mercilessly set upon by music critics) but also through the process of Gershwin’s writing and performing. To anyone with any ear at all for music, that’s a fascinating thing, as Felder/Gershwin demonstrates the journey from learning Dvorak’s Humoresque as a boy to conceiving such masterpieces as Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess.
Along the way, we’re treated to Felder’s dead-on characterizations of others in his life, from his Russian-born immigrant parents to such interpreters of his early songs as Al Jolson and Ethel Merman. We also see inside his relationship with friend and collaborator Kay Swift and, of course, his close bond with his lyricist brother, Ira.
Along the way there’s plenty of enduring Gershwin music, which Felder plays as seemingly effortlessly and enthusiastically as the master himself. Felder uses an oft-quoted Oscar Levant line in the show to demonstrate Gershwin’s indefatigability when it came to performing his work; when Gershwin asked pal Levant if he thought his music would still be played 100 years later, Levant deadpanned, “It will be as long as you’re still around.”
The play George Gershwin Alone officially seems to end, as it well might, with Felder’s dazzling performance of Rhapsody in Blue. But stick around; Felder is devoted to the idea of re-creating the after-show parties at which George and his New York and Hollywood cohorts would mingle and sing, and his audience is given the opportunity be part of that atmosphere. Felder also demonstrates his ease with an ad-lib here, and since the audience will be different every night, the songs he plays may be, too. At any rate, this is the portion of the show where a critic puts down the pen and simply sits back to enjoy.
George Gershwin Alone continues through June 5; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.