The Soul of Gershwin at Park Square Theatre

Bass (Chris Bates), Trumpet (Adam Meckler), Woodwinds (Dale Mendenhall), Drums (Jay Epstein), and Violin (Gary Schulte). Photography by Petronella Ytsma.

For the holiday season, Park Square Theatre has chosen to revive the warmly received show about George Gershwin that premiered there in 1999. The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer is a delightful musical offering: a well-researched and interesting story backed by wonderful music – with not one single holiday tune.

Gershwin’s instantly recognizable, note-bending ascending clarinet riff sets the stage for a show that’s all about that clarinet – and a violin, drums, bass and trumpet, too. Like a really cool music prof, Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin narrates his own story – a staged music history lesson – supported by three singers who serve to illustrate his points. But really it’s about the band, and they are simply amazing.

Dale Mendenhall on that wailing clarinet, Chris Bateson bass, Jay Epstein on drums, Adam Meckler on trumpet, and Gary Schulte on violin, with the show’s creator, band leader, and pianist Joseph Vass, make up the band “Klezmerica,” stirring up an exuberant mix of traditional Jewish and early 20th century tunes, and Gershwin’s own music, from Tin Pan Alley to the ground-breaking Porgy and Bess.

Each instrumentalist is a virtuoso in his own right, but besides playing just a blizzard of notes at a ­­­­­­­­­­­cracking pace, they also played the right thing at the right time, including sweet melodies exquisitely phrased. Schulte’s violin solo work on Bulka’s Song, for example, which opened Act II, was absolutely lovely. I was especially taken with Epstein’s performance on drums because he really is a performer, and his style of drumming is so peculiar, it seems to me, to klezmer.

We have long thought of Gershwin as the guy who put his own stamp on a particular kind of popular, jazz-influenced music – and he did. But this show is out to clarify the relationships and make the point that Gershwin was, above all else, influenced by his own Jewish music and culture and, at its heart, even Summertime from Porgy and Bess owes more to cantorial singing than jazz or gospel. He may be holding hands with jazz or gospel (or ragtime or blues), but at its heart, he wrote his own style of Jewish music.

Three singers – Maggie Burton as The Chazzen or Cantor, Prudence Johnson as The Chanteuse, and T. Michael Rambo as The Griot or Storyteller – make Vass’s premise not just easily digestible, but deliciously so, demonstrating how Gershwin admittedly stole from anywhere and anyone, making famous someone else’s musical phrases in enduring songs such as S’Wonderful and It Ain’t Necessarily So.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Rambo sing so sweetly as he did in The Sidewalks of New York and Embraceable You, and he was warm and completely engaged with his audience every minute. This isn’t easy with no dialogue, or even ad libs, in fact, with no dramatic action for them at all.

Burton simply took charge of A Mixed Blessing in a cantorial riff-off with Rambo’s gospel version – an even contest and great fun. I admit to limited knowledge when it comes to cantors, but with her powerhouse voice and delivery, she has to be right up there with the best of them.

Johnson brought us back to more familiar territory with The Man I Love, but didn’t really get rolling until closer to the end of the evening with It Ain’t Necessarily So and the I Got Rhythm Reprise. Where, I have to wonder, was that spark in Act I?

Aside from some weird settings on the vocal mics (and they were too hot for my taste), it was technically clean, with a moody backdrop and cabaret-style lighting that supported the show’s relaxed ambiance.

A very pleasant evening, it brightened up a gray day with music we still love generations after it was first imagined by Gershwin and his contemporaries.

The show runs through January 1.


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