Review: ‘The Soul of Gershwin’ A Very Jewish-American Rhapsody

In time the Rockies may crumble

Gibraltar may tumble

They’re only made of clay

But our love is here to stay.”

Ira Gershwin completed the lyrics to “Love is Here to Stay” just after his brother died unexpectedly on July 11, 1937, at the age of 39. If you listen closely, and you’ll hear the tender elegy to George. In his program notes to “The Soul of Gershwin,” Joseph Vass, who created and wrote the play, refers to Gershwin as “the great American composer.” If you can make it over to Park Square on one of these frigid winter nights, you’ll probably come to see George Gershwin a distinctly Jewish composer as well.

“The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer” (playing through Dec. 31) has had numerous stagings for Twin Cites audiences over the course of nearly 20 years. It’s a combination of music-bio, music history lesson, and concert and in the words of a Gershwin song, ‘s wonderful.

Directed by Peter Moore, the play is a transporting love song to Gershwin. Vass uses the now familiar device of a retrospective autobiographical address. Gershwin (Michael Paul Levin) appears on the side of the stage puffing a cigar and reflecting bemusedly on his remarkably meteoric musical career. Like the recent spate of jukebox musicals, the play is part concert, part music history, part personal reflection. But it also features some unusually thoughtful meditations on what it meant to Gershwin to be Jewish-American, which is somewhat different from bang an American who happens to be Jewish.

The musical numbers, which make up the bulk of the plays two hours, are sung by three terrific performers, each representing a defined influence or category of influences on Gershwin’s music.

Maud Hixson, a newcomer to the show, is the Chanteuse. Hixson performs Gershwin tunes as if she were singing them in a nightclub. Her fine, clear alto and her subtly controlled phrasing does full justice to jazz classics like “The Man I love” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” – plus she can scat. What raises her performance from the simply good to truly impressive is the understatement in her renditions, always steering our focus away from herself toward the songs themselves. We become totally absorbed by the richness and complexity of Gershwin’s music. She lets the music do the work.

Geoffrey Jones as Griot (or Storyteller) performs songs like “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You” as showtunes, that is, in the spirited way they would have been performed in the Broadway reviews and musical comedies for which they were written.

The influence of Jewish music traditions is well represented by Maggie Burton as the Chazzan. Burton, who is both a cantor and an opera singer, displays a remarkable range, as she performs everything from cantorial music to Chassidic chanting, and adds the schmaltzy, goofy, witty, and capricious upbeat numbers and sad yearning ballads from Yiddish Theater.

As wonderful as all these performers are, it is the local band, Klezmerica, that provides the zesty showstoppers in this play. I had not been aware that the Twin Cities had any Klezmer bands, much less one as good as Klezmerica. (The six-member group also tours, records cd’s, and does wedding and bar mitzvahs). All of the musicians are good, but, for me, the standouts were Doug Haining on Woodwinds and Carolyn Boulay on fiddle (the program says “violin,” but it sounds like fiddle). Klezmer music in Eastern Europe was dance music, and the musicians here are celebratory, upbeat, and do some mean riffs. But as with all reminders of Yiddish culture, the melodies and riffs are always laden with a sense of “lostness” – to use the writer Daniel Mendelsohn’s unforgettable term. But then all of Jewish musical traditions that I’m familiar with seem possess at least a little of that sense of ephemerality that renders the sweet moments sweeter and more precious still, and makes Klezmer celebration music – like the famous clarinet glissando that begins Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – so beautifully manic. Is that what Gershwin meant when he said that he liked to think of his music as Jewish “because of the emotion”?

Whatever Gershwin meant, Jewish emotion pervaded his work, though it did not seem to characterize his personality. Michael Paul Levin gives Gershwin a Jewish twinkle in the eye when he makes a Jewish joke, but what makes his performance so effective is the way he captures that sense of ease that, aside from Gershwin’s monumental cultural achievement, made Gershwin the consummate “Great Jew” of 50’s “Great Jew” literature (as in “Great Jews in Sports,” “Great Jews in Entertainment,” etc.) – that is, his sheer normalness. Gershwin himself, though not religious, strongly Jewish identified; he was raised in one of those secular Jewish liberal/socialist household on the Lower East Side of New York City. Which is to say that he neither glorified his Jewishness nor for a moment did he wish “to overcome it.” He was happy being Jewish in part because he was happy with who he was – American to his roots.

Want to see “The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer”? TC Jewfolk has three pairs of tickets for the Dec. 24 2 p.m. show. E-mail us at [email protected] to be entered in a drawing. Winners will be chosen at random on Dec. 20.