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2 Musicals Celebrate Gershwin (Associated Press)...As it is, the composer, who died in 1937 of a brain tumor, remains a mystery....- Apr 30 5:57 PM ET


Posted on: 04/30/2001

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Monday April 30 5:57 PM ET
"2 Musicals Celebrate Gershwin" 2 Musicals Celebrate Gershwin


NEW YORK (AP) - There's nothing quite as seductive as a George Gershwin melody. Rhythmically strong, intoxicatingly lyrical, it demands total surrender.

So give in right now to "American Rhapsody," a cozy, intimate celebration of George and his brother Ira that feels more like a private party than a public performance. This vest-pocket revue, running off-Broadway at the tiny Triad Theater, offers fizzy, lighthearted entertainment.

You will have a much harder time succumbing to "George Gershwin Alone," Hershey Felder's pedestrian one-man primer about the composer of "Girl Crazy," "Porgy and Bess," "Rhapsody in Blue," and "An American in Paris" among others. It opened Monday at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre.

Felder, a classically trained pianist, portrays Gershwin. Not only does he play the composer, but the performer plays the piano and sings, too. I don't know if Gershwin could sing, but Felder can't, especially something as demanding as "Porgy and Bess." When he lets loose with "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" (singing both Porgy AND Bess), the results are ear-shattering.

The strident vocalizing might be bearable if the rest of the 80-minute show managed to tell us something about Gershwin beyond a straightforward biographical resume and a few lame jokes. As it is, the composer, who died in 1937 of a brain tumor, remains a mystery.

Not that "American Rhapsody" explains the man either, but the production is more compelling than "George Gershwin Alone" because the music, not a recitation of facts, propels the evening.

"American Rhapsody" features pianist-singer Mark Nadler and singer K.T. Sullivan, two performers whose physical looks conjure up images of the 1920s. Nadler, hair slicked-back and wearing a devilish grin, could be one of those guys who tinkled the ivories in a Broadway speakeasy. Sullivan, a voluptuous blonde, beckons with a come-hither smile and a knowing sauciness that suggests she's a lot smarter than she'd be willing to admit to any admirer.

They make a compatible pair, working their way through a pile of Gershwin songs, most of them well-known, a few not. One unpublished ditty, "You're Mighty Lucky," with lyrics by B.G. DeSylva rather than Ira Gershwin, is a witty duet that, if there is any justice, should find its way into the standard Gershwin repertoire.

Sullivan does a particularly vampish rendition of "Lorelei," another obscure ditty, one that shows Ira's lyrics were the equal of his brother's melodies.

If Felder is content to plod chronologically through Gershwin's life - from his birth in 1898 on New York's Lower East Side to his death in California at 38 - Nadler and Sullivan use the musical numbers to comment on the man's life.

Ruth Leon, who devised and staged "American Rhapsody," has come up with several imaginative ways to showcase the songs. The most winning is a mini-retelling of the plot and musical numbers from "Shall We Dance?" That Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie featured such Gershwin classics as "They All Laughed" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me."

Nadler can dance and play the piano at the same time, scoring with a jaunty rendition of "Slap That Bass" that has him moving his feet as nimbly as he does his fingers. The pianist has a light touch on the keyboard, something not evident in Felder's show, particularly his bombastic rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue."

Gershwin music radiates an effortless joy. "American Rhapsody" captures that effervescence. "George Gershwin Alone," alas, does not.

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