Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
First performed in 1999 as Gershwin the Klezmer, Voss conceived of The Soul of Gershwin as an exploration of the Jewish musical traditions that provided fertile ground for Gershwin's remarkable output: a treasury of popular songs, symphonic works, and the great folk opera Porgy and Bess. These remain at the pinnacle of their respective genres almost eighty years after Gershwin's death in 1937, at just 39 years old. Actor Michael Paul Levin fully transforms into Gershwincomplete with brash confidence, looking dapper in a double-breasted suit jacketand acts as our guide through this tour of Gershwin's musical journey. In a sense, as the title suggests, he is not Gershwin in the flesh, but the spirit, or soul, of the man, looking back today over his accomplishments. He knows how his own story ends, but also knows how his work has far outlived his mortal life.
Gershwin's narration is regularly punctuated by the music itself, played by Klezmerica, with frequent forays into soaring instrumental solos in both klezmer and jazz, and sung by three top-notch vocalists. Maggie Burton, in the role of the Chazzan (or cantor) performs cantorial chants and traditional Jewish blessings, which illustrate the similarities between the sounds Gershwin heard growing up and the music he created. Maud Hixson is in the role of the Chanteuse, performing Gershwin's songs as they might be heard on a Broadway stage or in a supper club. Geoffrey Jones lends his voice to the role of Griot (or storyteller). It is not actually clear what story Jones' character is telling, other than as illustrations of points Gershwin is making, (but the Chazzan and the Chanteuse do that as well). No matter, Jones sings (like his co-stars) beautifully, and that is contribution enough.
The title provocatively calls Gershwin an American Klezmer, which to most observers would suggest Gershwin was a purveyor of klezmer music. Voss takes pains to say that is not his intent, that the word "klezmer" in Hebrew means "an instrument of song," in other words, a musician. George Gershwin most certainly fit that bill. The eastern European Jews who passed through Ellis Island in the late 18th and early 19th centuries included many klezmers, or musicians, and the music they played was labeled klezmer music. In Gershwin's case, he was a klezmera musicianwho did draw upon the sound of klezmer music, but also the cantorial chants of the synagogue, the flourishing Yiddish theater, and the rich musical sounds brought to New York by another wave of immigrants, southern African Americansblues, ragtime, and jazz.
Combining his influences, and a large dose of innate genius, Gershwin created a cornucopia of songs that form the foundation of the Great American Songbook. He was not alone, as Voss (speaking through Levin's characterization of Gershwin) tells us; of course there was his lyricist brother Ira, as well as a host of other Jewish immigrant kids who changed their names and went on to musical fame, among them Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, Arthur Schwartz, Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Gershwin shares anecdotes about some of his colleagues, including the oft-told story about Cole Porter, who figured out that the thing keeping him from success as a tunesmith was not being Jewish. He started using Jewish sounds in his melodies, and started writing hits. Still, George Gershwin is singularly distinguished even in that company, not only for his memorable show tunes, but for his great orchestral compositions and transcending the bounds of musical comedy with Porgy and Bess.
Peter Moore, as director, is also an alumnus of past productions of The Soul of Gershwin. He knows the territory well, and moves his performers smoothly about the spacea stage and mezzanine surrounding the Klezmerica bandwell to maintain visual interest and seamless transitions. The cast is dressed to reflect the formal glamour of Gershwin's heyday, with a golden shawl for Ms. Burton that suggests a cantor's ceremonial garb.
Along with Michael Paul Levin's stellarand well-practiced, having played the part in this show numerous times beforeportrayal of the man of the hour, George Gershwin, Maggie Burton gives a particularly strong performance, reaching glorious high tones in cantorial chants and music from the Yiddish theater, as well as a deeply moving rendition of "Summertime." Her singing conveys not only beauty to the ear, but deep emotion that reaches the heart. Geoffrey Jones sings brilliantly, particularly distinctive in "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," and an achingly tender "Embraceable You." Maud Hixson, the also has a beautiful voice, bringing loveliness to "The Man I Love," "'S Wonderful," and "Someone to Watch Over Me." However, as a chanteuse, one expects to hear a seductiveness that is missing in her performance. Her songs sound great, but don't break the skin.
The three join voices to close the first act with "I Got Rhythm" and several songs that wind up the second act. One of these, "Life of a Rose," is a little known song Gershwin wrote with Buddy De Sylva (not a Jew) and, while a pleasant enough tune, it is unlike typical Gershwin melodies. With so many beloved Gershwin songs unable to fit into the show, this seems a strange choice. It is introduced by saying that Gershwin thrived on being surprised, and yes, this song surprisesbut more by its ordinariness than its greatness. However, it is followed by a rousing reprise of "I've Got Rhythm" to close the show on a high note.
The musical highlight, however, is the band Klezmerica, with exceptional musicianship playing in harmony and extended solos. They illustrate fully not only the genius of Gershwin's music as written, but its rich and, it would seem, infinite potential as a jumping off point for musicians in Gershwin's day, today, and one would expect, for generations to come. More than anything else in the show, it is the fabulous performances by the six musicians on stage that illuminate The Soul of Gershwin.
The Soul of Gershwin continues at Park Square Theatre on the Proscenium Stage through December 31, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats on day of performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Created and Written by: Joseph Vass; Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin; Music from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin; Director: Peter Moore; Musical Arranger and Director: Joseph Vass; Scenic Design: Dean Holzman; Costume Design: Jason Lee Resler; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Diekman.
Cast: Maggie Burton (Chazzan, or Cantor), Maud Hixson (Chanteuse), Geoffrey Jones (Griot, or Storyteller), Michael Paul Levin (George Gershwin).
Cast: Jane Froiland (Olive), Sara Marsh (Betty), James Rodríguez (Gus), Luverne Seifert (Tor).