There is a great deal of alchemical magic going on at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield where Hershey Felder is channeling George Gershwin in “George Gershwin Alone.” He is playing the American genius, telling his story, regaling the audience and finally bequeathing an American masterpiece on us in his virtuosic rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.” There is the story, the music and the playing of both by one man who wrote the play which defies description or superlatives. It is a very special night in the theater!
The stage is set in soft pre-show lighting picking up what will prove to be a very significant armchair and floor lamp stage left, a chair and desk loaded with scores stage right and a Steinway concert grand piano center stage. On an upstage scrim, there is a large photo of Gershwin projected on it. There is Gershwin music playing in the house, “I Got Rhythm” before the curtain speech and after the admonishment to turn off your cell phones played as if over the radio in the ‘20s the house and stage go completely black. A single note is played on the piano in the dark, reaching out to the theater. The lights come up revealing Hershey Felder at the piano playing “I Loves You Porgy” and explaining as Gershwin how he achieved his effects with the structure of the song. The play starts out with the plea in the lyrics “Don’t let him take me/ Don’t let him handle me/ And drive me mad/ If you can keep me/ I wanna’ stay here/ With you forever/ And I’ll be glad.”
Felder quickly backs up and recounts George’s boyhood on the lower East side as one of four children to immigrant Russian Jews, his discovery of music at a friend’s recital and the growth of his very quick, deep and abiding love for music. “Music is everything to me.” He thrived during the Tin Pan Alley period when rehearsal pianists were so much in demand and could work with so many producers and shows they became known as “piano pimps.” He was a rehearsal pianist with The Ziegfeld Follies and would try out his own compositions during smoke breaks.
He was very ambitious, “We wanted one thing, to be famous.” He would plug his songs at parties and at one in Harlem, he was playing “Swanee” and Al Jolson seized on the song and placed it in his show “Sinbad” which was already running. He said of Jolson “It was like he had a megaphone in his throat.” From there, George and his older brother Ira wrote a number of Broadway shows which included the standards “Embraceable You,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm.” One of their shows “Of Thee, I Sing” was the first musical to win the Pulitzer.
There is a plethora of biographical information covered quickly and movingly by Mr. Felder as he recounts all the great successes “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris” and “Porgy and Bess” with telling details that Mr. Felder has researched for his show. The evening hits all the right notes directed by Joel Zwick. “Porgy & Bess” was not a success at the time of its debut and Gershwin was devastated by the reception (it was said he was crying at the back of the house on the closing night) and moved out to Hollywood shortly after where he and his brother worked on films for Fred Astaire. “Shall We Dance” produced the standard “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Song. Gershwin had died two months before the film’s release.
He had been kicked in the head by a horse as a child and carried a tumor his whole life which became increasingly worse the last year of his life when he suffered blackouts, headaches, and delusions. He finally suffered a brain herniation, collapsed and became comatose and died two days later on 7/11/1937 at the age of 38.
Felder does a terrific job showing Gershwin’s mastery of the instrument and his drive to compose like the major influences in his life Ravel and Debussy but also his deep understanding of popular forms. “These were my times, these were my people and jazz my beat.” The playing of the complete “Rhapsody in Blue” will astound you.
“George Gershwin Alone” also reveals his sad isolation in his 10-year affair with composer Kay Swift, his treatment by the critics, the harsh antisemitism in an ugly condemnation by Henry Ford and his untimely death. His brother Ira finished the lyrics to “Love is Here to Stay” after George passed away. It is impossible not to feel tears welling up during the performance of the last song he composed “It’s very clear/ Our love is here to stay/ Not for a year/ But ever and a day.”
After a thunderous standing ovation, Felder urges us to take our seats again and opens up a q & a with the audience after a sing-along of a couple of Gershwin songs. The night I went we were encouraged to join in on “Summertime” and “The Man I Love.” The feeling was as if we had joined George at one of his post-show parties and we were all gathered around the piano. In the conversation with the audience, Felder was erudite, generous and playful. He has eight other plays based on composers from Beethoven to Bernstein and I would go see him again in a minute. You should give his Gershwin company before Saturday 8/31.