Hershey Felder as George Gershwin (Photo: Ashmont Media)
BOSTON — With Hershey Felder already at ArtsEmerson last month to present his new work Maestro: Leonard Bernstein, Executive Director Rob Orchard prevailed upon the renowned performer to revisit his one-man show, George Gershwin Alone. If you missed its run on Broadway in 2001 and later engagements at the American Repertory Theater, avail yourself of the rare opportunity now. The show and Felder are masterful.
A concert artist, composer and actor, Felder has researched Gershwin with the vigor of a Harvard thesis student. He spent five years poring over original manuscripts, reading through personal correspondence and listening to audio recordings. He’s interviewed family members and biographers. The result is an insightful and fully engaging look at one of this country’s most revered composers.
George Gershwin Alone feels a bit like a hot air balloon ride. Felder guides us gently and swiftly through the Gershwin biography. Absent of hammy theatrics and melodrama, it’s an elegant passage moving from Gershwin’s childhood in New York to his days as a “piano pimp”, where he caught Al Jolson’s attention to the writing of Porgy and Bess and a life in Hollywood. Felder punctuates the biography with fascinating revelations about how Gershwin composed: that he changed the key midway through “Swanee” just to keep the listener in his grasp, how he crafted a deliberate counterpoint musical architecture in “Summertime” and how he replicated Parisian taxi horns in composing “An American in Paris.” For much of it, Felder sits at a Steinway grand piano playing, singing and interjecting while a mirror hangs above for an even more intimate perspective of Felder at play.
Gershwin did not have an entirely easy life. His early success with “Rhapsody in Blue” and in Jolson’s spotlight was never fully matched. Porgy divided critics, studio head Samuel Goldwyn found his songs unremarkable and even Gershwin’s own mother wondered why her son couldn’t be more like Irving Berlin. He died of a brain tumor at age 38 without the widespread acclaim he has today. And that is where Felder intervenes in a show post-script. To a packed house on Wednesday evening he took requests and played a number of Gershwin faves as an eager audience sung along. It was a warm, poignant tribute.