Fascinating it most assuredly is not, unless you’re the kind that ogles car accidents. A strained and wholly unnecessary attempt to prove that the songs of dear old George and Ira are still young, fun and sexy, sexy, sexy, “The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm” might well have been called “Smokey George and Ira’s Cafe.” But boomers aren’t likely to thrill to its desperately funkified arrangements of classic tunes, and Gershwin lovers will be aghast. Consequently the show doesn’t have a prayer, even in this weak Broadway musical season.
In both its design and overall conception, the revue, directed by Mark Lamos, recalls various variety shows from the ’70s, from “Sonny and Cher” to, heaven help us, “Solid Gold.” Michael Yeargan’s set design, featuring sliding panels that frame the performers in various geometric arrangements, might charitably be called minimalist. Uncharitably: cheesy. Peggy Eisenhauer’s generally sharp lighting features lots of hot colors, as do Paul Tazewell’s generally vulgar costumes, a compendium of the glittery, the stretchy, the shiny and the clingy (and some of the performers should not be sporting the clingy).
But the show’s visual deficiencies would easily be forgiven if its musical achievements were accomplished. Unfortunately, here, too, a lack of taste prevails. Certainly the Gershwins’ wealth of music is amply represented: In an intermissionless hour and a half (which feels a lot longer), the show’s dozen performers race through 27 songs.
But the subtle charms of all too many of them are squandered by self-conscious attempts to dress them up in contemporary musical styles. Occasionally this is successful, as in Paul J. Ascenzo’s smoothly rolling R&B arrangement of “Lady Be Good,” performed by Darius de Haas. More often, it’s not. The greatest damage is done to Ira’s lyrics, which are lost in the music mix and drained of wit by the often overblown performances.
Most disastrous is a lugubrious version of the peerless, winsome “But Not for Me,” which is here turned into a power ballad firmly in the Michael Bolton vein. Patrick Wilson, who has the misfortune of singing the song, even begins to look like Bolton by the tune’s finish (it hasn’t been a happy season for this talented, handsome performer: he also starred in “Bright Lights, Big City”).
Lamos’ Vegasy staging often features an aggressively sexuality that is antithetical to the mood and style of the songs; smoldering looks between Sara Ramirez and Michael Berresse destroy the romance of “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” Choreographer David Marques’ rote work is mere glosses on various styles: Fosse-esque jazz and tap and Broadway musical ballet (the athletic Berresse ably performs most of the dancing duties).
Overall, the performers, many of whom boast strong vocal resources, seem to believe that volume and earnestness are the keys to performing Gershwin, when it’s style that matters most — a more offhand, sophisticated touch best brings out all their rich delights. Sara Ramirez has a beautiful, smoky voice, but her torchy, “The Man I Love” ignores the wry irony that infuses Ira’s lyrics. Even the few who score successes do so at the cost of subtlety. Adriane Lenox, so delightful in “Dinah Was,” pulls off some ripe comedy in “The Half of It Dearie, Blues,” but it’s in a broad vein that palls by the song’s end.
A mild stir has been kicked up about Lamos’ lesbian staging of “Isn’t It a Pity.” There are also some homoerotic and homopolitical elements in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Who Cares?” — but who cares? It’s not the novelty of the interpretations but an overall lack of elegance and artistry that makes this unfortunate revue such a, well, pity.