No book, no dialogue, no narration. Instead, “The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm” pays glossy tribute to the incomparable achievements of George and Ira Gershwin with nonstop song and dance by a highly accomplished cast of nine and an orchestra of 11. Who could ask for anything more? No one, especially when this expensive-looking production is judged as the unapologetic nightclub act it is.
Hartford theatergoers have turned this Hartford Stage production into a box office bonanza, with a scheduled May 10 to June 15 run extended through June 29. Despite the recent crush of song-catalog revues, a tour has been rumored (perhaps prompted by the involvement of New York producer Manny Kladitis and Columbia Artists Theatricals).
The Hartford Stage has gone all out to give “The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm” glamour and pizzazz, starting with Michael Yeargan’s gleaming nightclub setting of a polished ebony stage backed by gleaming corrugated panels and bordered by multicolored neon tubing. Cast members, almost all of whom come direct from Broadway musicals, acquit themselves with musicality, verve and personality.
To say Liz Callaway takes the vocal honors (never more so than in the Gershwins’ final song, “Our Love Is Here to Stay”) does not slight the contributions of the other performers. And somehow the cast seems to be larger than it is. Ditto the band, partly because of Mel Marvin’s musical and vocal arrangements and Larry Hochman’s orchestrations, some of which are period-perfect, while others are fascinating contemporary glosses.
David C. Woolard’s costumes, which range from basic black to hilarious RuPaul overkill and evoke several different decades, add considerably to the show’s appeal, as does Pat Collins’ color-suffused lighting.
The show’s conceivers, Mark Lamos and Marvin, are keenly aware of the equal importance of music and lyrics in Gershwin songs, Ira’s words almost always creating a story in miniature. They also mine the pervasive aura of heartache in much of George’s music, particularly in the cast’s simple, deeply felt harmonizing of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” red AIDS ribbons clearly apparent on their black costumes. Orchestral music is also included, such as portions of “An American in Paris” and the charming promenade music “Walking the Dog.”
The show begins with the original Cliff Edwards recording of the title song, which is quickly taken over by the orchestra as a spotlight reveals a leggy showgirl (Stephanie Pope) twitching uncontrollably in the spell of that fascinating rhythm. In the second act, Pope is the statuesque human double-bass caressed by Sebastian La Cause and John MacInnis in “Slap That Bass.”
La Cause has several smashing solos, including a riotous “Delishious” that gets every ounce of fun out of Ira’s wordplay. Singing dancer MacInnis brings a Ray Bolger quirkiness to the show, a quality choreographer David Marques might well make more of. The choreography generally is more in the Bob Fosse slink-bump-and-grind mode, which does tend to give the show a certain sameness.
Mary Bond Davis is the show’s big red-hot mama, a role she clearly relishes, in “I Got Rhythm” and particularly “The Half of It Dearie Blues.” Beth Leavel brings tough-gal raspiness and humor to such songs as “My Cousin in Milwaukee” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” joined in the latter by Darius de Haas (outstanding in a pleading “Lady Be Good” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”). Angela Maiz and James Barbour also have their moments, and the entire cast performs as a splendid choral ensemble.
The one major letdown is “The Muse and the Blues,” a ballet set to bits and pieces of “Rhapsody in Blue” and other compositions. It’s cornball, as MacInnis as the Artist (George?) is torn between Maiz as the Muse (classical music?) and de Haas as the Blues. Something much more choreographically sophisticated is needed if this production number is to succeed, though the whole concept might be a mistake.
Because of the wondrous music and lyrics and the consistently fine performances, “The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm” can’t help but entertain. But its nightclub sensibility does limit its future.