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The Poison Tree

George Gershwin Alone

By Los Angeles
Hershey Felder as George Gershwin
Hershey Felder as George Gershwin
Breakthrough artists are often both revered and reviled for their work. And then there's the backlash effect: If an artist is known for one thing, he or she is often scorned for trying something else. Such was the case with George Gershwin, as told in Hershey Felder's one-man show George Gershwin Alone--A Play with Music, now at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles.

An accomplished pianist, the 31-year-old Felder wrote this piece following 400+ performances of Gershwin's landmark "Rhapsody in Blue." With permission of the Gershwin heirs, he is beginning the show's trek to Broadway here in Los Angeles--Gershwin's final home. Gershwin died at age 38 in 1937 after succumbing to an undiagnosed brain tumor. Remarkably, this seems to be the first time since Gershwin's death that he is being played on stage by an actor-pianist in a major production.

Felder intensely studied Gershwin's work and style to capture his essence, and studied his life just as carefully to find personal and familial moments to inform the show. In a period suit, he bears a remarkable resemblance to the composer as he blends storytelling, comedy, and Gershwin's amazing tunes into a solid 90 minutes of entertainment. The fact that Felder also has acting and conducting experience gives him a commanding presence beyond his age. The audience gets a few music lessons, too, especially in the segment on Porgy and Bess (Felder sings all the parts).

Felder takes us from Gershwin's Brooklyn home with his Russian immigrant parents. The young man was apparently on the road to becoming a hoodlum when he heard the magical sound of a violin being played by a fellow student. That sound changed his life forever, and he embraced the turn-of-the-century free form sounds of jazz and made them his own. Throughout the course of the show, Felder plays many of Gershwin's biggest hits: "I've Got Rhythm," "Swanee," "Embraceable You." He even imitates Al Jolson (who helped propel Gershwin's career) and Ethel Merman (one of the composer's favorite singers).

Gershwin became the darling of Broadway, then was dismissed for his larger accomplishments including Porgy and Bess. He tried Hollywood, but that experience left him unfulfilled. We learn from Felder that Gershwin died never having married the love of his life, Kay (who notated much of his music) and, of course, never knowing the impact he would have on American music. Just before his death, he had to deal with the shocking, shameful words of the anti-Semite Henry Ford, who in a newsletter blasted the "filthy Jews" for bringing the "dark sounds" of Africa to America. The final blow came from Samuel Goldwyn himself, who, in response to Gershwin's An American in Paris, told the composer that if he wanted to succeed he should write songs "you can whistle."

Yet Gershwin won in the end, having lived on in the hearts of America. Today, his music is more popular than ever. The piece de resistance of Felder's show is a masterful rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue" that brings the house to its feet.

George Gershwin Alone is directed by Joel Zwick, who makes sure that the show is full of life. Yael Pardess' 1920s-'30s living room set is gorgeous, and lighting designer Marianne Schneller gives the elegant Steinway its due, center stage.


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