Friday, May 20, 2011

REVIEW: Hershey Felder supberbly honors George Gershwin

Felder as Gershwin; Mark Garvin/Publicity Photo
Hershey Felder’s celebrated one-man show “George Gershwin Alone” opened on Broadway a decade ago.

He’s performed it nearly 3,000 times.

But the version Felder presented at the Asolo Rep’s Mertz Theatre on opening night Thursday felt fresh, vibrant and offered an intriguing look at one of the most important composers this country has ever produced.

The actor/pianist/playwright offers the equivalent of an intimate evening with Gershwin.

Felder peppers his script with anecdotes that are by turns poignant and humorous.

He’s a fine actor and considering little footage of Gershwin exists, it’s easy to feel as if the real-life character is on stage.

As for his chops at the piano, Felder proved tremendous. He deftly worked his way through the various Gershwin styles, imbuing deceptively simple ditties with gritty emotion and bringing subtle majesty to the orchestral compositions. The classically-trained player eve made the jazz numbers sizzle and swing.

The setting is akin to Gershwin’s living room, which consists of a grand piano, chair, table and work desk. Smart lighting by Michael Gilliam sets the mood.

The two-hour, no-intermission show largely consists of Gershwin reflecting on his life chronologically.

There’s the story about writing his breakthrough, 1919 hit “Swanee” because he ”wanted to be famous.” Al Jolson famously recorded the song several times and Felder delivers a funny impersonation of the singer’s brash style.

Lyricist Ira Gershwin, who never lived farther than across the street from his brother, is described as “my other half.” Gershwin then discusses composing their jazz standard “I Got Rhythm.”

The composer laments having to write show tunes and pop ditties in Hollywood rather than more serious work.

Perhaps most moving — from an acting standpoint — is watching Felder’s Gershwin perform a scene from his now classic opera “Porgy and Bess” and then read the devastating reviews. Gershwin financed the production that flopped after its 1935 opening.

“I lost everything,” he says.

There’s only a minor mention of his lover of 10 years, composer Kay Swift.

“I never saw her again,” Gershwin says flatly after explaining she found a new guy after he left New York for Los Angeles.

But it’s in keeping with his character.

“I am my music,” he says.

It’s a theme that permeates the show.

Swift leaves him and it results in the stirring “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Felder performs with beautiful pathos.

Gershwin talks us through the experiences that inspired the “An American in Paris” — punctuating the tale with the honking of car horns. Regarded as a masterpiece today, the composition apparently got panned just like “Porgy and Bess” did when it first premiered.

“Criticism is the only thing any of us really remember,” Gershwin says.

Headaches are mentioned throughout the show. Turns out he had a malignant brain tumor.

Gershwin died in 1937.

He was 38 years old.

“I was dead,” Gershwin says.

But not the show.

Gershwin, or the ghost of Gershwin, tells a touching story about “Love Is Here to Stay,” a gem of the Great American Songbook.

“It was the last thing I composed,” he says. “Ira wrote the lyrics after I was gone.”

After playing the popular song, Felder performs “Rhapsody in Blue” — the entire composition, which clocks in at about 10 minutes, each moment spellbinding Thursday.

A well-deserved standing ovation and then Felder slips out of character and interacts with the crowd, eventually leading sing alongs of popular Gershwin hits such as the “Porgy and Bess” closer “Summertime.”

I would’ve preferred the show ending right after Felder’s riveting performance of “Rhapsody.”

But the audience adored becoming part of the show for the last half hour.

And Felder was particularly charming as he interacted with the elated crowd.

Ticket info.

My interview with Felder.

This just in:
Sarasota, FL (May 20, 2011)–In response to the overwhelming popularity of George Gershwin Alone (now playing through June 5), Asolo Rep has added a special one-night-only performance of  Hershey Felder in Concert: The Great American Songbook Sing-Along on Sunday, May 29 at 7 p.m. in the Mertz Theatre.
This event features an entire century of American music – beginning with Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, Bernstein, Sondheim ... The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, Showboat and more.
Hershey Felder will lead the party from the piano as the audience joins him to celebrate a century of America’s greatest music.
Please call the Asolo Rep box office for more information at 941-351-8000; toll free 800-361-8366, or check online at

Asolo Rep’s Mertz Theatre: 5555 North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, Florida. Free Parking.
Tickets: $17 to $65, depending on the show, day/time/seating, and method of purchase.
Contact: Box office at 941-351-8000 or toll-free at 800-361-8388, or
Groups: 10+ save from 20%; call 941-351-9010 ext. 6013 or

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