Show brings magic of Gershwin to life
PITTSFIELD — Call 51-year-old pianist-actor-composer-playwright Hershey Felder a man of multiple personalities. He's been Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and American music masters Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin. But when Felder begins a week-long stint Saturday at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre, it will be as the American master who began it all for him — George Gershwin.
Felder will be performing "George Gershwin Alone," an evening of music and narrative chronicling the life and career of a preeminent contributor to the Great American Songbook. Before his death in 1937 of an undiagnosed brain tumor at age 38, Gershwin wrote more than 1,000 songs for stage and screen — mostly with his brother, Ira — and for concert and opera halls. Think "Porgy and Bess," "An American in Paris," Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F.
The show, which Felder has performed throughout the United States — including a three-month Broadway run in 2001 — is a blend of anecdotes about Gershwin's life and career along with a healthy sampling of his music.
Felder was born in Montreal, Quebec, on July 9, 1968, to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents. He and his younger sister were raised by their father after their mother's death in 1982. Felder pursued a career in theater and music, studying Yiddish theater at the Saidye Bronfman Center for the Arts in Montreal.
"When I started this," Felder said, "I was a young actor and a pianist. I had little life experience then, so (at that stage) you just go for it. The less you know, the less inhibited you are. Over the years, I've experienced what Gershwin must have experienced (in terms of growth). The older you get, the more you know and the more you know the more successful you become."
Felder approaches his role as George Gershwin the same way he would prepare for any character in any conventional theater piece.
"It's about the fundamentals of acting," he said. "It's about complete knowledge. You have to keep studying, always. It also is about imagination; getting the members of the audience to use their imagination. Of course, this is not really George Gershwin on the stage."
American popular music has undergone major transformations in the decades since the brothers Gershwin wrote their music; indeed, the 25 years since Felder developed and first performed "George Gershwin Alone." But the Great American Songbook — American standards by the likes of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Cy Coleman, the Gershwins, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Larry Hart, among others — has endured and has become tightly woven into the fabric of American popular culture. And it holds appeal overseas.
Felder tours Europe primarily with his shows about European composers — Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky. But he will also bring along Gershwin and Berlin, on occasion, and he's found that European audiences respond to those shows warmly.
"I think there is a kind of sadness and nostalgia around these songs that have to do with a time when people were civil to each other," Felder said. "There is a sense of hope about this music; a feeling of America's can-do-yes-we-can spirit. There is something very forward-looking about America in this music."
By his own reckoning, Felder has performed "George Gershwin Alone" over 3,000 times in the 25 years since he created the show. And it hasn't grown cold or routine; not even close.
"There is magic here," he said. "You cannot ignore the magic of this music."
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