George Gershwin Alone, Berkeley

Written by:
John Sullivan
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‘George Gershwin Alone’

Book by Hershey Felder
Music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin
Directed by Joel Zwick
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
June 8-July 7, 2013

It’s short and sweet and like some paradoxical party where everybody has a great time until the host drops dead in front of the bar. Then he jumps back up and leads you in song.

Of course, that is the way things happened. In 1937 the 38-year-old George Gershwin suddenly died of a brain tumor and the world has been singing his tunes ever since. Maybe it’s a metaphor but Hershey Felder’s “George Gershwin Alone,” packing them in at Berkeley Rep, is a fun ride until it crashes at the end, leaving its audience with a song in its heart and a tear in its eye. So, where do you go from there? If you’re Felder, you play a virtuoso piano arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Felder has been shlepping this show around – from Broadway to the West End and back again – for the better part of 15 years (he also does Beethoven, Bernstein and Chopin on occasion, but let’s not go there) and he is undeniably a talented and amiable performer. He even looks a little like Gershwin, minus the aristocratic Jewish shnozz. A terrific pianist and decent singer, he holds the stage for 90 minutes as, in a self-written script, punctuated by song — part memoir, part cabaret — he traces a life from its humble Russian immigrant beginnings through a teenage stint as a “piano pimp” for Broadway shows and subsequent meteoric rise as a songwriter as George Gershwin and his older brother Ira churn out one hit after another.

Gershwin may have led the high life, hobnobbing with celebs like Al Jolson, Ethel Merman, Irving Berlin and whoever else was around to lift a glass, but it wasn’t all champagne and caviar. There was his messed-up love life, his frustration with the critics who refused to accept his serious work — the opera “Porgy and Bess,” “Concerto in F” and the aforementioned “Rhapsody” (so much for critics) — an unfulfilling hiatus in Hollywood and the headaches that plagued him all his life (the tumor went undiagnosed until his final collapse). Felder gives us all of that and the show, like life, is a mixed bag of success and failure, laughter and tears.

Some of the stories are apocryphal and familiar to any Gershwin aficionado, such as the time when he sought to take lessons from the great Impressionist composer, Maurice Ravel. Ravel, relates Felder, asked Gershwin how much money he made from his Broadway shows and, when Gershwin told him, suggested that maybe he, Ravel, should be taking lessons from George. But Felder, according to press material, was given complete access to the Gershwin Archive, and much of the material is new. All the anecdotes are engagingly told in the first person.

“George Gershwin Alone” was directed by Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) with scenic design (a large mirror overhead, a wall hung with show posters, a table and chair, a desk and the grand piano front and center), and sound design by Jon Gottleib. One last warning: do not leave when the last notes die away, the lights go down and the performer takes his bows. The best is yet to come. Shedding his Gershwin persona, Felder comes back out, as himself, and leads the audience in a sing along of hits shouted out by the audience. If you’re any good (“All it takes is a little bit of talent and a lot of chutzpah”) you may even get a solo. It is the most fun you’ll have in a long time and you’ve got to feel sorry for the folks who rushed away to get their cars out of the garage.

Relax, it’s summertime and the living is easy.

Suzanne Weiss

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