Actor, pianist, and playwright Hershey Felder concluded his hugely successful, limited one-week run of his solo show “George Gershwin Alone” to an enthusiastic audience Saturday evening at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre. Mr. Felder’s theatre niche is one-man, performance bios of the world’s great composers from Chopin to Leonard Bernstein. It’s clear why “Gershwin”, which he’s performed both on Broadway and the West End, is his most popular; Gershwin left an everlasting mark on American popular culture still alive in concert halls, theatres, movies and on recordings of musical artists of every genre.
Mr. Felder not only weaves all the Gershwin musical highlights - “Swanee”, “I Got Rhythm”, “Embraceable You”, selections from “Porgy and Bess” and "An American in Paris”, plus more - of his public career into his elegant, 80-minute performance but also shares Gershwin’s personal life, the ups and the downs. Gershwin tells of his introduction to music while at bat playing baseball on a Brooklyn lot and hearing a neighborhood chum practicing violin. He recalls affectionately being a “plugger” in his teen years, churning out ditty after ditty for vaudeville houses. He regrets that his sometime collaborator and the only love of his life, Kay Swift, never became Mrs. Gershwin; he alone in Hollywood, she in New York.
Gershwin had no illusions about Hollywood’s commercial imperative; he’s bemused by movie mogul Sam Goldwyn telling him he ought to write songs that are “more like Irving Berlin’s.” He’s less sanguine about the dismissive critical response to his serious works during his lifetime; when a reviewer called “American in Paris” “pedestrian”, Gershwin quips “Of course, it’s pedestrian….it’s about a guy walking around Paris.”
Ironically, critical acclaim for Gershwin’s work that uniquely fused classical and jazz composition was posthumous; Gershwin died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. But “George Gershwin Alone” isn’t a memorial service; Felder’s masterful renditions of Gershwin’s classics are vigorous, sometimes augmented by archived recordings of the original vocal stage performances. Joel Zwick’s direction has all the elegance of Mr. Felder’s performance; it’s classy and stylish without being pretentious. Michael Gilliam’s sumptuous lighting evocatively follows the contours of each musical piece.
Mr. Felder saves the best for the last - a splendid “Rhapsody in Blue”. After the standing ovation, Mr. Felder allowed that the Berkshire Theatre Group has invited him to return next summer. As a clue to what next year’s show will be, he performed a lovely arrangement of Beethoven’s ”Fur Elise”. The Berkshires will be welcoming Mr. Felder back, indeed.
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