It may seem a disservice to call the just-opened George Gershwin Alone at the Helen Hayes Theatre a lecture with music, but that's both an accurate description and one of the show's notable strengths.
This one-person performance, in which writer-star Hershey Felder pretends to be Gershwin himself, includes a pleasing percentage of information about the great composer. We learn how Al Jolson discovered "Swanee" (Gershwin/Caeser). We learn about the revolutionary musical choices Gershwin made, and why he made them. We even learn that Gershwin's mother berated him for not writing tunes like Irving Berlin. The anecdotes and factoids Felder imparts enrich the show and oftentimes create a deeper understanding of Gershwin's genius. Felder also delivers the text with a certain degree of subtlety and elegance; but he doesn't really deliver the music.
Oh, he plays the piano swell enough. But Felder is, at best, an undistinguished vocalist. The problem, you see, is that the show is not really about George Gershwin alone; it's about George Gershwin with Ira Gershwin, not to mention a few other lyricists. With the notable exception of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin's life is in the songs he wrote in collaboration. Felder plays these songs well but he doesn't sing them with distinction--not that he doesn't try. He offers selections from Porgy & Bess (not a great idea) and croons a number of other Gershwin standards. These interpretations have no special merit, except for the wonderful choice Felder has made to perform the entire show without benefit of amplification. Because there are no microphones, the sound is human and wonderfully real.
For those who love Gershwin's music (and who, among theater buffs, does't fall into that category?), there's something else that is undeniably compelling about this show: Felder's honest reverence for Gershwin. That reverence is reflected in the portraits used as part of Yael Pardess' set design; they are originals painted by Gershwin himself. So, too, the score brandished on stage by Felder is the original of Porgy & Bess, in Gershwin's own hand.
Joel Zwick, the show's director, uses the entire stage to excellent effect, giving what would otherwise be a static experience a modest kinetic energy. The only misstep is a large mirror at the back of the stage that is cleverly angled so that the audience can see the reflection of Felder's hands on the keyboard. Unfortunately, the mirror has a distortion in it that gives a funhouse effect; from where we were sitting, Felder's right hand constantly appeared to be elongated. If this surreal reflection is intentional and meant to suggest that we're seeing the ghost of Gershwin's hands on the piano, it's an irritating sideshow. If, on the other hand, the purpose of the mirror is to simply allow the audience the ability to see Felder's hands in motion, it's a very good idea that ought to be made more workable.
The current competition for George Gershwin Alone is American Rhapsody at The Triad, starring KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler. The latter show is infinitely superior in the musical department--audiences get much more music, performed in a far superior manner. Nor does the Triad show lag far behind in terms of patter. Where George Gershwin Alone feels like a loving memorial, American Rhapsody allows its extraordinary stars to interpret Gershwin's music through their own larger-than-life personalities.
In Felder's show, there is nostalgia and grace; in the Triad show, Gershwin's music is alive and kicking. We preferred American Rhapsody, but both are valid entertainment.