Sommerfest meets 'Summertime' with the Gershwins

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 16, 2011 - 6:54 PM

Despite its commercial tone, "The Gershwins: Here to Stay" is a fine tribute to the prolific songwriters.

Shown in this UPI file photo (undated, probably 1930s) are George Gershwin (left), and Ira Gershwin (at right), songwriters extraordinaire. music

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Jacob and Israel Gershvin, better known as George and Ira Gershwin, wrote more than 700 songs, many of them gems of their genre, from 1918 to 1937, when George was felled by a brain tumor at age 38. Some of the best -- think of them as minute one-act plays with a twist at the end -- are mired in musicals that feel hopelessly dated. How to rescue them?

"The Gershwins: Here to Stay," which played Friday to a full and enthusiastic house at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, is one plausible answer, its commercial tone and oddly punctuated title notwithstanding.

Destined to travel widely, this new multimedia revue assembles hits--no buried treasures here -- that span George's career, from "Rialto Ripples" (1916) to "Our Love Is Here to Stay" (1937), and embeds them in a biographical narrative spiced with marvelous photos and film clips (and occasionally marred by a surfeit of performer chatter).

Conceived by the multitasking pianist-singer Kevin Cole and co-produced by Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of George and Ira, "Here to Stay" has the imprimatur of the Gershwin estate. Inevitably, perhaps, its version of George's story -- Ira's long career as a lyricist after his brother's death falls outside the show's self-imposed boundaries -- is slightly sanitized.

The show downplays the significance of George's Jewishness and of his leftist politics. (It's framed by the 1927 "Strike Up the Band" but gives no hint that this is the title number of a pointed anti-war satire.) And it breathes not a word of his modernist musical strivings: Arnold Schoenberg was a friend, Alban Berg an inspiration.

Cole, though sounding a bit scripted at times, proved an engaging host. On Friday his traversal of "Rhapsody in Blue," a piece he's played often, seemed cautious and a little square, lacking the rhythmic fizz and snap of Gershwin's own pianism. The audience, treated to Gershwin's account of "I Got Rhythm" via video, could easily make the comparison. Other evenings may tell a different tale.

Soprano Sylvia McNair is one of the best in the business -- if you're skeptical, track down her CD of Samuel Barber's "Knoxville Summer of 1915" -- and her sultry "Summertime," atmospherically accompanied by a patient Minnesota Orchestra under ex-assistant conductor William Eddins, was for me the summit of the program.

Singer-tap dancer-choreographer Ryan VanDenBoom, a mere 21, isn't quite Kelly or Astaire -- who is? -- but has a bright future.

Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.

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