Hershey Felder has been tickling the ivories in homage to the great American composer in "George Gershwin Alone" for the past 13 years. He's got rhythm, and he's got music as he channels the genius of Gershwin for almost two hours. Who could ask for anything more?
While this chatty one-man show doesn't illuminate much about the artist's life and inspiration that you don't already know, it's a heartfelt valentine to the American songbook that goes down as smoothly as a bourbon Manhattan with a bright red cherry on top (one of the specialty cocktails at the show). As a tuneful antidote to a weary world, "George Gershwin Alone," which runs through June 23 at Berkeley Rep, is pretty darn close to s'wonderful.
Felder, who has orchestrated similar tributes to maestros from Beethoven to Bernstein, hinted around at Sunday's opening night that this might be his swan song to Gershwin after 3,000 performances. He's clearly in awe of the man he portrays, and his commitment to the material is part of the show's allure. If it's hard not to wish for a little more depth to this biography, it's also hard to resist the glories of a songbook that includes "I Got Rhythm," "Summertime," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Embraceable You" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me."
The mind-boggling depth and breadth of Gershwin's catalog is reverently showcased here. Buoyantly directed by Joel Zwick ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), "Gershwin" zips along from the composer's salad days to his biggest triumphs.
Holding court at a Steinway, the pianist/performer transports us from Gershwin's start as a piano player for the Ziegfeld Follies and his breakthrough hit with "Swanee" to his tragic death of a brain tumor at the age of 38.
The play is also a poignant reminder that few recognized Gershwin's brilliance in his own era. Many dismissed him as a hack, when in truth, these songs are like the soundtrack of 20th-century America. Plagued by crippling headaches and dogged by doubt, Gershwin was sustained by his vision of a new American sound.
"True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time," as Gershwin famously put it. "My people are Americans, and my time is today."
It's hard to believe that critics eviscerated "Rhapsody in Blue" and sneered that "An American in Paris" was "pedestrian." He lost his shirt on "Porgy and Bess" but went on to be hailed as the man who "made a lady out of jazz" and the man who "heard music in the heart of noise."
Getting little glints into where the songs may have come from (did a disastrous love affair with Kay Swift lead to "They Can't Take That Away from Me"?) is also highly entertaining, and Felder's imitations of the likes of Al Jolson and Ethel Merman are priceless. The historical context for the music is also fascinating, from the euphoria of the Roaring '20s to racism fueled by the rise in immigration. The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Gershwin was forever trying to prove his worthiness to the establishment on Broadway and in Hollywood.
While Felder ends the evening with a shamelessly cheesy sing-a-long that makes the show seem a tad long, he's certainly got the chutzpah to carry it off. Many members of the audience who gamely belted out beloved ditties were also in fine form, if not in perfect pitch. Clearly, when it comes to Gershwin, our love is here to stay.
Written by and starring
Through: July 7
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $29-$77 (subject to change), 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org