The designation of “George Gershwin Alone” as “a play with music” is only half accurate. Of music there is much — 10 or so of the composer’s greatest songs as well as “Rhapsody in Blue” — but this solo show written by and starring Hershey Felder is not so much a play as a nightclub act with extra helpings of between-song patter.
The distinction here is that Felder is actually personifying Gershwin, not just performing his music and chatting about him. But as it turns out, that’s a fairly small distinction: The pronoun “I” is used, but Felder isn’t really pretending to offer a full emotional portrait of Gershwin or represent the artist at a particular juncture in his life. Felder’s informative, breezy writing is really just superficial biography disguised as autobiography.
In the production’s somewhat synthetic conceit (where are we? what year is this? who is he talking to?), Felder sits at a Steinway at center stage and regales us with anecdotes about Gershwin’s life and career. (Yael Pardess’ sepia-toned set papers the walls with show posters and replications of two paintings done by the composer himself.)
He talks of his impoverished childhood as the son of Jewish immigrants; of his love of musical experimentation, beginning with the key change in “Swanee,” one of his first big hits; of the gestation and disappointing critical reception of “Porgy and Bess”; of the subsequent move to Hollywood, where Gershwin died of a brain tumor at the tragically young age of 38.
Felder’s primary career is as a concert pianist, but he’s an old-fashioned all-around showbiz type, the kind of energetic, natural performer who shows no trace of self-consciousness onstage (of self-satisfaction more than a little, at a faux-humble curtain call that seems to cue a rhapsodic reception rather than respond to it). He bears some resemblance to Gershwin and sings his songs with fervent relish in the style of the period. His accomplished piano playing is more varied and sensitive than his singing, even if the “Rhapsody in Blue” at the reviewed performance was more showy than artful. Selections are strictly the greatest hits — from “The Man I Love” to “Embraceable You” to “Summertime.”
Even at Broadway’s smallest theater, the show is not ideally housed. The raised stage accentuates the text’s lecture-ish tone (“And then I wrote this one …”). As a basic Gershwin primer, this is a modest and inoffensive evening, but it’s hard to know who the audience is expected to be. Musical aficionados will find the material’s Gershwin-for-beginners approach unilluminating and somewhat dull, but the show hardly seems likely to draw mainstream theatergoers. And how sad to reflect that Broadway audiences these days need an introduction to a man whose music once filled not just many of the district’s theaters but the city itself.