Just in time for Hanukkah, "The Soul of Gershwin" manages a light yet rich entertainment on the music of the man who -- in a life cut short -- gave us "Rhapsody in Blue," "I Got Rhythm" and "Summertime."
Light, for this show relies on singers and instruments to transport the message of George Gershwin's genius. Rich, for the surprises tucked into Joseph Vass' script about how deeply Gershwin was affected by the Jewish music that surrounded him.
Park Square Theatre last produced this work 10 years ago, when it was called "Gershwin the Klezmer." This new staging, which opened Thursday in St. Paul, brings back all the principals but one: T. Mychael Rambo replaces Bruce Henry as one of three singers who make the music soar.
Michael Paul Levin plays Gershwin, an amiable narrator of the songwriter's brief and brilliant career. Vass' script isn't the most elegant thing but he's great at choosing details. Gershwin was among a coterie of Jewish songwriters inspired by the minor chords and long narrative phrases of their cultural and religious experience.
The best observations in the show are those that link songs from Yiddish theater and temple services to familiar Gershwin melodies. Maggie Burton warbles a Hebrew phrase with reverent tones, and in the next moment Rambo has picked it up in "I've Got Rhythm." Again, Burton contributes a piece by Yiddish composer Abraham Goldfaden and Prudence Johnson responds with "'S Wonderful." And the trope repeats itself with "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" from "Porgy and Bess." Gershwin picked up melodies from his heritage and let them breathe with his own lyrical interpretation.
"Mediocre songwriters borrow," Levin notes dryly. "Great songwriters steal."
The show also lets Vass' group, Klezmerica, stretch its musical legs. Dale Mendenhall opens the evening with the scorching clarinet cadenza of "Rhapsody in Blue"; Gary Schulte very nearly sets his violin afire with old klezmer riffs and Chris Bates provides a nimble, constant beat on bass.
Rambo, Johnson and Burton give the human and personal depth to "Gershwin." Rambo has such confidence and effortless power, never straining beyond what the score requires. His voice lands tenderly on each note of "Embraceable You." Johnson has carried Gershwin's music with her for years, and that knowledge never feels deeper than when she sings "Someone to Watch Over Me." Burton does the heavy lifting with traditional music but she gets a nice spotlight on "Summertime."
The spirit of holiday, if not the substance, makes this show feel right this time of year.