Some of our brightest entertainment legends — James Dean, Marilyn Monroe — have led relatively short lives, but few have packed as many accomplishments into an abbreviated time frame as did George Gershwin.
Gershwin wrote more than 1,000 songs for Broadway and the movies, including the entire score for the Oscar-winning “An American in Paris,” as well as a folk opera (“Porgy and Bess”) and arguably the greatest piece of music ever (“Rhapsody in Blue”). And he never lived to celebrate his 40th birthday.
Devotees of the great Gershwin now have a shrine at which to gather — the Laguna Playhouse, where a master pianist and superb actor, Hershey Felder, is presenting his one-man show “George Gershwin Alone.”
Gershwin never lived to enjoy his illustrious fame — reviewers at the time weren’t always kind — but hopefully he’s smiling down at Felder, who channels the great composer both musically and dramatically, tracing Gershwin’s life from a 10-year-old New York stickball player inspired by a young violinist to the brilliant musician who succumbed to a brain tumor at the age of 38.
Early on, Felder touches on “Rhapsody in Blue,” written when Gershwin was 26, but he saves the complete concerto for his climactic number toward the end of the program. Watching his flying fingers on the piano during this modern classic, which normally involves a full orchestra, is worth the admission price by itself.
A particularly significant portion of the program is devoted to the creation of “Porgy and Bess,” including the changes of style and tempo incorporated during the process. Here Felder takes us behind the scenes of a classic in the making, a fascinating experience.
Gershwin’s last composition, completed by his brother Ira after George Gershwin’s death, was the beautiful “Our Love is Here to Stay,” which Felder lovingly reproduces. You may remember Gene Kelly singing that one to Leslie Caron on the bank of the Seine in “An American in Paris” back in 1951.
After a resounding reception, and bringing his audience to its feet en masse, Felder invites the audience to participate in a little sing-along, a popular after-show pastime in Gershwin’s day. An opening night treat was the presence of Stasha Surdyke, who’d graced the Laguna stage a year ago, as an impromptu guest solo artist.
The prolific Felder hasn’t stopped with Gershwin — that’s only one element of his trilogy of one-man shows about great composers.
He also has a Beethoven tribute in his repertoire, one on Leonard Bernstein in the works and another on Chopin, which he’ll present at the playhouse next month.
Meanwhile, “George Gershwin Alone” remains a captivating overview of the legendary composer by a contemporary musical genius who hits all the right notes in a compelling production.
If You Go
What: “George Gershwin Alone”
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until Feb. 21 with special performances at 2 p.m. Jan 28, and 7 p.m. Jan. 24
Cost: $40 to $70
Call: (494) 497-2787