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Solo Gershwin show at Berkeley Rep thrills crowd

 

Hershey Felder portrays the legendary composer in “George Gershwin Alone” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Mark Garvin.

Hershey Felder may be channeling George Gershwin.

If that’s not what’s going on, he must at least be sensing the composer’s fascinating rhythms through the fingertips of both hands.

He also has a nuanced, carefully researched understanding of Gershwin’s colorful, truncated life.

The charismatic performer exhibits all that as he plays the musical genius’ melodies on a concert grand Steinway, and dramatizes tidbits of his bio, in a solo 90-minute Berkeley Rep show titled “George Gershwin Alone.”

The work is an outgrowth of five years of study (interviewing family members and biographers, perusing correspondence and checking out original manuscripts, listening to old audio recordings).

Felder’s been touring the show across the globe for 13 years (including a Broadway stint).

But he jokes that what came before this run was merely preliminary — practice sessions for his East Bay appearance.

He also claims he’s tired.

So many performances (3,000 and counting), yet to me he’s as fresh as if this were his world premiere.

My wife, a highly talented jazz pianist and “spoke-alist” who’s performed in countless senior venues in Marin, San Francisco, Sonoma and the East Bay, labels him a virtuoso.

I’m biased, of course, but, considering her skill level, I find the pronouncement high praise indeed.

Not to mention astute — and accurate.

She particularly lauds his flying fingers and classical flourishes, and calls him “a confident pianist, confident vocalist, confident raconteur.”

I’ll add “confident humorist.”

The show’s prime conceit of having Felder inhabit Gershwin’s persona works divinely, thank you, except for the moments he’s depicting the composer’s death at age 38 from an undiagnosed brain tumor. They’re awkward.

Thankfully, Felder doesn’t end the show that way.

He plays “Rhapsody in Blue” at length instead, then involves the audience in a boisterous, half-hour sing-along “encore” (which includes an “It Ain’t Necessarily So” call-and-response and an uproarious, unfamiliar novelty tune penned with Irving Berlin).

The bulk of the show, naturally, focuses on standards — in addition to excerpts from “Porgy and Bess,” “An American in Paris” and Gershwin’s concerto: “S’Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

But the character study also pinpoints the composer’s flaring insecurity when berated by movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn for not writing tunes simple enough to whistle — a la Irving Berlin.

And his anger after being targeted by auto tycoon Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic rants.

Although Gershwin’s legend has outlasted such commentaries (probably because he wrote more than 1,000 tunes), his fame, according to some other critics, was mainly due to Ira’s lyrics — or stemmed from the luck of having superstar Al Jolson sing his first hit, “Swanee.”

This tour de force starts with poignant chord-less notes from “Porgy,” the composer’s jazz opera about poor Southern blacks that initially flopped and caused the affluent son of immigrants to lose his shirt.

And it glimpses a childhood in which Gershwin wandered “the streets of lower Manhattan with my hoodlum friends.”

Felder also touches on the composer’s tenure as a rehearsal pianist with the “Ziegfeld Follies” (“they used to call us piano pimps”), and he deftly performs duets with antique recordings of Gershwin and Jolson.

His anecdotes, for the most part, are extremely amusing.

Such as his recounting Gershwin’s father (a cutter of shoes) mistakenly believing “Fascinating Rhythm” to be “Fashion on the River.”

Felder, who created his own book for this show, is abetted by the smooth direction of Joel Zwick, who’d spearheaded the comedy film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,”

Scenic designer Yael Pardess also helps via a lean set that features blown-up covers of sheet music, a plush curtain implying wealth, and two chairs that enable Felder to get closer to the audience at either end of the stage.

He’s aided, too, by projections that capture images of George’s lyricist brother, Ira, and best friend/lover, Kay Swift.

The night I saw the show, the Berkeley crowd was more gray-haired, wrinkled and frail than the usual Rep audience.

Many, like a blissed-out woman across the aisle from me, were so familiar with the material they quietly sang or hummed along with Felder throughout.

Audience reaction to Felder approaches ecstasy.

I understand.

Because he’s that good.

“George Gershwin Alone” plays at Berkeley Rep’s 400-seat Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, through July 7. Night performances, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays. Matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $14.50 to $77, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

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