“George Gershwin Alone” is a gushing lovefest for and about the early 20th century genius who wove jazz, Broadway, pop and classical music into a new American musical idiom. Writer-performer Hershey Felder is more piano-bar raconteur than thesp, and the text, originally developed at the Tiffany seven years ago, is mostly a string of “and then I wrote’s.” But anyone whose soul resists refreshment after two hours’ immersion in the Gershwin songbook is probably beyond redemption.
Despite Yael Pardess’ lush 1920s atelier set complete with Art Deco proscenium, it’s not clear where we are or why this elegant dude with the overdentalized patrician accent is telling his life story. The details are the stuff of any routine published biography: immigrant parents, child prodigy, musical triumphs — “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Porgy and Bess” — and death from a brain tumor at 38. Gershwin’s narration of his own death is especially disorienting. Is this limbo?; given those melodies, it’s probably heaven.
Playing or discussing the music energize Felder/Gershwin and the evening. Illustrations of the composer’s technique — going beyond the octave in “I Loves You Porgy,” or changing “Swanee’s” key from verse to chorus — may not impress the cognoscenti, but are lucid and fun for the lay aud. When he stops talking and just swings into “Embraceable You,” you can feel the spectators, especially those of an age, ease back and involuntarily reach for a bill to put into a brandy snifter.
But the play as play remains tissue-paper thin. No effort is made to evoke lyricist brother Ira or best friend Kay Swift as living beings. An anti-Semitic screed by Henry Ford is shoehorned in to provide “relevance,” and some anecdotes strain credulity. (How could Ira sit down to hear “Porgy’s” act-one finale duet “for the first time” when he’d been writing its lyrics for months?)
In a way, Felder as both playwright and actor is undone by his intensely private and egotistical subject. No one knew Gershwin, really; his life was his art, period, and getting to the heart of this unique individual is beyond Felder’s resources at this point. Unwilling to emphasize the dark side but with little else to work with, he plays the entire monologue with the same breathy, monotonous “Isn’t that amazing!” subtext and conveys attitude by reacting to every irony and critical slight with an identical irritated, supercilious grimace. (He may be making that face right now.)
With 3,000 or so perfs behind him, his timing and gestures are long since worked out like a metronome, but it’s not too late for helmer Joel Zwick to direct him to employ a wink and a smile on lines like “I realized that Al Jolson and Ethel Merman sounded exactly alike.” Since there’s no intention of making Gershwin a full-out arrogant bastard, why not add more warmth?
Following an oddly aggressive but undeniably rousing climactic “Rhapsody,” house lights come up and Felder steps out of the Gershwin persona to become an unabashed fan. For a half hour, he chats about his experiences with the show and emcees a George ‘n’ Ira singalong with unalloyed grinning charm. It would be lovely if more such rapport were permitted to complement the glorious music throughout.