Actor/pianist Hershey Felder obviously loves the music of George Gershwin, and his one-act biographical play is a fitting tribute to the composer who died at the all-too-young age of 38 after redefining American music. The play is agreeable, sometimes clever, and certainly brief, but it’s also the kind of authorized history that’s informative without being expressive, that tells us a lot of facts without giving us a deeper sense of the man. Not quite a concert, and not quite a play, “George Gershwin Alone” is more a lecture-demonstration, albeit a good one.
Presenting the work in the voice of Gershwin, Felder takes us through the songwriter’s life, beginning when the son of Russian immigrants fell in love with music at the age of 10.
From the start, apparently, Gershwin knew he wanted to experiment with the music of the day, “musical free-form with a beat — jazz.” Felder nicely demonstrates how the composer began to transform classical music into his own unique, dynamic sound.
After working as a rehearsal pianist for “Ziegfield Follies,” Gershwin got his first break when Al Jolson performed “Swanee.” Felder explains what made the song different, describing the change in key in the middle of the tune, and he gives due credit to Jolson for his whistling contributions, which sound designer Jon Gottlieb effectively incorporates.
Like much of the show, this piece reinforces Gershwin’s importance, tells us about his life, and gives us a nice taste of the music itself, but it’s all within a context that seems more academic than theatrical.
There’s something a bit odd about listening to a composer give an appreciation of his own work, and it’s unclear whether Felder means to imply that Gershwin was a serious egotist.
The entire endeavor may have been much more moving if the writer, who began performing himself at the age of 11, created a piece dealing with how Gershwin’s music affected Felder’s own life.
As is, we get a sense of Gershwin as a self-conscious, rather than intuitive, genius. Felder sets up dramatic scenes, like the first time he played the magnificent second-act duet between “Porgy and Bess” for his brother Ira, writer Du Bose Hayward, and Kay, the woman George truly wanted to marry.
But then Felder reverts to the past tense as he explains Gershwin’s methodology. The music and the storytelling never come together in an emotional epiphany.
Felder documents Gershwin’s ongoing struggle with the under-appreciative critics, his move from New York to Hollywood, his time in Paris and the creation of the music for “An American in Paris.”
It also touches very effectively on the anti-Semitism of the day, with Felder reciting a truly horrific article printed in a newsletter funded by Henry Ford. The piece ends narratively with Gershwin, alone, playing the piano in a Hollywood soundstage just before his sudden death from a brain tumor.
Along the way, Felder samples plenty of great Gershwin tunes, which clearly mark the highlights of this piece. But only a couple of them, unfortunately, are given a full treatment. There are hints of a deeper treatment of the man himself, and a sketched out interpretation of his life: a beloved popular composer who never got the critical acclaim he deserved during his life and who wrote great love songs without ever experiencing a deeply satisfying love.
But this aspect of the work is never fully realized. Felder ends with a passionate performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” that sends the audience out feeling satisfied, but “George Gershwin Alone” is more effective as a mini-concert than as a dramatic work.