Theater Review: Hershey Felder casts a spell as George Gershwin
PITTSFIELD — "It certainly is a magical place, isn't it?"
The largely rhetorical question was posed by a very nice woman sitting next to me at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre. She was referring to the handsomely restored historic venue. But as the houselights faded and a dim spotlight came up on Hershey Felder's hands as his fingers worked a few notes of "I Loves You, Porgy" on the Steinway & Sons concert grand piano center stage, it became clear that the Colonial also is a place in which magical things can happen.
"George Gershwin Alone," which the 51-year-old Felder has been performing worldwide since he created it 25 years ago, is another of those famous dead-person narratives that ask audiences to make a huge willing suspension of disbelief. But there is so much in Felder's favor here that it isn't too long before disbelief is suspended only too willingly.
"George Gershwin Alone" is the 10-year-old-stickball-playing-boy-in-a-Lower East Side New York-playground-to-death narrative about the life and career of one of the two pillars — Irving Berlin (whom Felder creates in another one-person show) being the other — of the Great American Songbook. Over a career that ended with Gershwin's death in 1937 at age 38 of a brain tumor, this son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents wrote over 1,000 songs for stage and screen — in collaboration with his older lyricist brother, Ira — as well as opera, "Porgy and Bess," and music for the concert hall — Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue (which Felder plays in full near the end of the show) and "An American in Paris."
It's a compelling story of a son of immigrant parents making good; cashing in on the American Dream even during periods in his life during which that dream seemed elusive.
There are healthy samplings of Gershwin's music, beginning with his ruminations over "I Loves You, Porgy," moving to his first big hit, "Swanee," which was picked up and recorded by Al Jolson; moving through a bounty of Gershwin golden oldies — among others "I Got Rhythm," "'Swonderful," "Embraceable You," "But Not For Me," "Our Love is Here to Stay" — along with an insider's view of the construction of some of the songs; the influences on Gershwin's music; the inspirations for and shaping of "An American in Paris" and Concerto in F. Felder also spends significant time with "Porgy and Bess" — which Gershwin wrote in collaboration with librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and his lyricist brother, Ira — culminating in a grand rendition of "Bess, You is My Woman Now," which Felder breaks down as he sings and plays, his voice blending, eventually, with the recorded voices of Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the original Porgy and Bess. The segment also chronicles Gershwin's relationship with Kay Swift, an American composer who, in 1930, became the first woman to compose a Broadway musical, "Fine and Dandy," on her own. The married and Swift brought DuBose Heyward's 1925 novel, "Porgy," to Gershwin's attention. She became a trusted musical advisor to Gershwin in a relationship that carried enough drama of its own.
Felder's Gershwin's account of the end of that relationship is among the more poignant moments in the show. The silence in a filled Colonial Theatre Tuesday was remarkable as Felder played out this portion of the narrative with as much breath-holding delicacy as his performance-ending interpretation of Debussy's "Clair de Lune."
Felder is an artist of prodigious talent — actor, musician, mimic, musicologist. The subject may be music but Felder is a man of theater. In collaboration with director Joel Zwick, Felder plays an audience with the silky accomplishment and self-assurance with which he plays the Steinway grand.
There is a featherweight graceful ease in Felder's hands whether he is conducting the audience in the nicely done postlude sing-along/Q&A segment of the show that follows seamlessly on the heels of Felder's bows or ranging over the piano keys with, by turns, dramatic power and crystalline delicacy. He has a keen sense of phrasing and timing. There is no denying Felder's charm and authority which he uses to create unexpected intimacy within this 780-seat venue
Magic? Sure. In a word and a half — 's wonderful.
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