George Gershwin made an appearance at the Zach Theatre in Austin last week.
Well, it wasn’t actually George (he died in 1937), but the next best thing: Hershey Felder in his one-man show, George Gershwin Alone. He is the only actor-musician to create the role of George Gershwin on the stage, and with over 3,000 performances, from California to Broadway to London’s West End.
George’s brother Ira is a recurrent presence here, with a large image of him projected above the stage at certain times. They were very much a dual act, with Ira serving as the brains behind the scenes, often providing the inspiration for certain tunes or lyrics. They wrote such iconic hits as “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
Felder was in complete command of the stage, offering a deep look into the life of Gershwin away from the bright lights. While regarded as an icon now, it was not so in his lifetime. His 1928 composition An American in Paris received mixed reviews. After a performance of his opera Porgy and Bess, Gershwin said he waited up all night playing tunes from the show so that he could be the first to read the newspaper reviews early the next morning. They were devastating. He left New York City for Los Angeles for a fresh start, but died the next year. One is left with the distinct impression that Gershwin died at age 38 in a state of hurt and disillusionment.
In this performance by Felder, who does resemble Gershwin and has the perfect voice to project the works of Gershwin, we hear many of the songs that made him famous. I was especially fascinated to see the role Al Jolson played in discovering Gershwin. Jolson, my favourite singer of the early 20th century, heard George play a tune and immediately began singing it in his own shows. The song Swanee became a Jolson superhit, and launched Gershwin’s career in 1920. He went on to write a thousand songs.
The formal show ends with a complete performance of the piano masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue, followed by a sing-along with the audience. Instead of him repeating the lyrics for the audience, they should have been displayed on the screen.
It was a tremendous treat to hear these popular compositions from nearly a century ago, which will certainly live on for centuries more.
The show continues until Oct. 1, 2023
About Hershey Felder:
Following 28 years of continuous stage work and over 6,000 live performances throughout the U.S. and abroad, Hershey Felder created Live from Florence, An Arts Broadcasting Company, which has produced eighteen theatrical films to date. They include the recently-released The Assembly; Musical Tales in The Venetian Jewish Ghetto; Chopin and Liszt in Paris; Violetta, the story of Verdi’s Traviata; Dante and Beatrice in Florence; Mozart and Figaro in Vienna; the world premiere musicals Nicholas, Anna & Sergei; the story of Sergei Rachmaninoff; Puccini, the story of famed opera composer Giacomo Puccini; Before Fiddler, a musical story about writer Sholem Aleichem; Great American Songs and the Stories Behind Them, Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic, a documentary. Two seasons of programming are currently available at www.hersheyfelder.net Hershey has given performances of his solo productions at some of the world’s most prestigious theatres and has consistently broken box office records. His live shows include George Gershwin Alone (Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre, West End’s Duchess Theatre); Monsieur Chopin; Beethoven; Maestro (Leonard Bernstein); Franz Liszt in Musik, Lincoln: An American Story, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Our Great Tchaikovsky, and A Paris Love Story and Chopin in Paris. His compositions and recordings include Aliyah, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Fairytale, a musical; Les Anges de Paris, Suite for Violin and Piano; Song Settings; Saltimbanques for Piano and Orchestra; Etudes Thematiques for Piano; and An American Story for Actor and Orchestra. Hershey is the adaptor, director, and designer for the internationally performed play-with-music The Pianist of Willesden Lane with Steinway artist Mona Golabek; producer and designer for the musical Louis and Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara, directed by Taylor Hackford; and writer and director for Flying Solo, featuring opera legend Nathan Gunn. Hershey has operated a full-service production company since 2001. He has been a scholar-in-residence at Harvard University’s Department of Music and is married to Kim Campbell, who was Prime Minister of Canada in 1993.