Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
October 26, 2012
Not everyone wants to be the top banana or the life of the party.
One creative virtuoso who was content to stay in the shadow of his more famous brother was Ira Gershwin. But now, he finally gets to tell his story, in the world premiere, “Words By: Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook.”
When the lights come up at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Ira’s in his easy chair, pen and paper in hand. He blinks at us, unbelieving. He really is center stage this time. He looks unnerved at first. Then he warms up and starts to tell tales about his New York childhood, his Broadway writing career and his Hollywood experiences. The memory and influence of his brother run through it all. George Gershwin died in 1937, at age 38. Ira outlived his brother by nearly a half-century, until 1983.
“For George,” Ira tells us, “it was music. But for me, it was words.” And when the two come together, magic ensues, as this narrative/ biodrama /musical deftly illustrates.
“Music makes you feel a feelin g,” Ira says, quoting his good friend and fellow lyricist Yip Harburg . “Words make you think a thought. A song makes you feel a thought.”
And the songs Ira created — to music by George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill – are filled with love, humor, melancholy and acrobatic wordplay.
In the show, most of the 260/ numbers are performed by singers labeled the Crooner and the Chanteuse. Meghan Andrews brings vitality and a lovely voice to her solos. Andrew Ableson , not really a crooner or a balladeer, is best with the novelty songs like “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Obviously enjoying their performances is Nicholas Mongiardo -Cooper’s genial, gracious and endearing Ira. Director David Ellenstein does the best he can with a fairly static setup, created by Joseph Vass, who also serves as musical director and pianist. The jazz band he’s assembled is superb: Bob Boss on guitar, Gunnar Biggs on bass and Duncan Moore on drums. The 26 songs are sung in their entirety, which allows you to catch every clever lyric.
There are two other musical events worth noting. “The Gospel at Colonus ” is Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s imaginative 1985 adaptation of the story of Oedipus as a church-service parable of forgiveness and redemption. Though there were serious sound problems on opening night, the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players production sports some glorious gospel singing.
And at the J*Company youth theater, kicking off their Streisand season, 16 year-old Rebecca Myers takes on the daunting role of Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” and knocks it outta the park – both vocally and emotionally. The other leads are strong, too, and the superb Jule Styne /Bob Merrill score is played by an excellent adult-and-youth band.
Clearly, when music and lyrics click, it’s inspiring.
“Words By… Ira Gershwin” runs through November 18 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
©2012 PAT LAUNER