Hershey Felder Resurrects George Gershwin

Jane Pojawa

Don’t wait until May 8 to take your grandmother out for a special date. The Pasadena Playhouse is presenting “George Gershwin Alone,” written and performed by Hershey Felder and directed by Joel Zwick. She’ll enjoy an early Mother’s Day treat, and “George Gershwin Alone,” is running for only a limited time. On April 20, Felder played to an enthusiastic crowd.

The stage of the historic Pasadena Playhouse glows blue with a minimal set suggesting the constants of Gershwin’s world: a writing desk, a seating area and at the center of it all, the composer’s piano.

Many students may be unaware of George Gershwin’s cultural legacy in pop music. Perhaps his most iconic tune is “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” a cross-cultural operatic jazz masterpiece which, like much of his other work, divided the critics. Gershwin’s brother Ira was his primary musical collaborator, and Felder pointed out that the two brothers never lived farther apart than across the street. Janis Joplin’s rendition of “Summertime” is the most recognizable modern recording of this blues classic.

Felder does a masterful job of weaving Gershwin’s tunes with anecdotes from his life: his humble beginnings as the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, his rise as a “piano pimp,” the highs and lows of his career and personal life, and finally his untimely death from a brain tumor at the age of 38.

Thematically, Gershwin sought approval from his family, from the public, from women, from his critics, perhaps even from himself – but never received the unconditional support he craved. Felder adroitly intersperses the musical theory behind Gershwin’s counterpoint and syncopation to something approaching musical physics; gives a succinct history of jazz as a truly American musical form and Gershwin’s influence on and by the genre; and how his music was condemned by racists and anti-Semites including Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer. He manages all with humor and aplomb.

That Felder is a better musician than a vocalist is eclipsed by his ability as a researcher, writer and actor. His flawless performance received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience. Following the performance Felder, still in character as Gershwin, led the audience in singing some audience favorites including “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Gershwin’s career roughly spanned 1920 to 1935, from the flappers and honky-tonks to the great depression, so although you might not know every song, they were popular standards at the time your grandmother was growing up. Hence the audience demographic was, in the main, over 60 years old. “Swanee,” “I Got Rhythm,” They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and many others rounded out the play list.

“George Gershwin Alone,” runs until May 8 with a special event, “The Great American Songbook Sing-along,” on May 9.

Now the music of George Gershwin may be slightly more engaging to younger audiences than say, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but some students may still dismiss it as entertainment for old people. This could not be further from the truth.

The Pasadena Playhouse strives to make live performances enjoyable for everyone and even offers a special discount subscription for students. At $99 for the 2011-2012 season, theater becomes both accessible and affordable.

Even productions that might seem old-fashioned, for instance Euripides’ “Cyclops,” which was written 2,400 years ago, has been re-imagined as a rock opera.

The 2011-2012 season begins September 2011 and includes a world premiere musical, “South Street;” a new play starring Academy Award-nominee Angela Bassett, “Pastoral;” a Tony Award-winning smash hit; an American classic and will wrap-up with a new musical to be announced.

Proof of student ID may be faxed to (626) 351-0291, presented at The Pasadena Playhouse box office or scanned and emailed to [email protected] Only one student subscription per valid student ID allowed.

The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. Subscriptions are available for purchase at
www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org, by calling the Box Office at (626) 356-7529.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars