Review: ‘George Gershwin Alone’ at Berkeley Rep
Like Copland, Gershwin was the foreigner who created American music, mirroring us back to ourselves.
George Gershwin Alone
When I got home from George Gershwin Alone, I spent the next 24 hours combing through YouTube clips of playwright, actor and pianist Hershey Felder. Felder spent the past 14 years bringing this work to New York, London, Ravinia, South Korea, and everywhere else, except the Bay Area. After the show at the Berkeley Rep, Felder noted that this was roughly the 3,000th performance – and suggested that it was soon to be retired. This deadline makes it urgent to catch this show now.
George Gershwin Alone is part of what Felder refers to as his “sonata.” Just as a sonata is made up of three movements and (occasionally) a coda, Felder’s sonata is composed of three different shows – Beethoven as I Knew Him, Monsieur Chopin, and George Gershwin Alone, with Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein added, as a coda.
The third movement of sonatas tend to be upbeat, social and joyous – corresponding perfectly with the music George Gershwin. Felder presents a bio-pic of Gershwin’s 38 years, interweaving narrative and powerful piano playing.
Born on the lower east side, Gershwin grew up in the age of great Yiddish theatre. Like Copland, he was the foreigner who created American music, mirroring us back to ourselves.
Felder trotted out such gems as Felder’s father, a Russian Jew émigré, renaming “Rhapsody in Blue” as “Rhapsody for Jews,” and singing “fashions in the river” instead of “Fascinating Rhythm.” He repeatedly returns to the inevitable comparison between Irving Berlin and Gershwin, nothing that not only did Gershwin’s mother dog him with the “why can’t you be more like Irving Berlin?” but Berlin himself jabbed that Gershwin was the “first American songwriter that turned into a composer.”
While most of the evening was devoted to Gershwin’s life and stories about his music, Felder didn’t avoid the analytical, as he opened doors to key changes, musical structure and how (as Ira Gershwin required) that the lyrics were echoed in the music itself.
Perhaps one of the best parts of the evening, was being in an entire audience that so cared so darn much about this music. After the show, everyone lingered for a half hour of so, singing “Summertime,” “I Got Rhythm,” and a half dozen others. Outside of summer camps and nursing homes, there’s almost no place for this type of social singing, which makes evenings like the all the more treasured.
George Gershwin Alone will be at the Berkeley Rep until June 23rd.