George Gershwin cuts a silhouette like Sky Masterson on the elevated Manhattan skyline to open “The Soul of Gershwin” at Park Square Theatre. Below him, a gaggle of Klezmers gather, in their hats and dark clothes, and soon a single clarinet curls into the famous opening of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
What follows is a light but interesting entertainment exploring the roots of Gershwin. Park Square has revived this piece for another welcome visit on a stage that mixes music with the urban iconography best defined by Gershwin’s work.
Joseph Vass created the show, writing narration for Gershwin (played by Michael Paul Levin) and finding lots of song spots for a chanteuse, a griot and a cantor.
Not to mention Vass’ band Klezmerica — a six-person combo that produces a dense and swirling sound highlighted by great cadenzas on horn, sax, reeds, bass and piano.
Levin, under Peter Moore’s direction, is a genial host as Gershwin. He tells the story of how a son of Eastern European immigrants became one of America’s great composers. Gershwin honed his instincts in Tin Pan Alley and New York’s Yiddish theater district before creating stage musicals, operas and symphonies that have become classics.
Vass is most focused on Gershwin’s relationship with his native Jewish music — the enduring influence of folk sounds that show up when you stop and really listen to “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Rhythm.”
If you care about rhythmic patterns and melodic influence, Vass has written a very engaging lecture, which Levin affably presents. Gershwin tells about his fellow Jewish composers such as Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin — and about the one gentile among them, Cole Porter.
If you’d like music with that, Klezmerica is only too happy to accommodate your wishes. Singer Maud Hixson brings a rich voice to “The Man I Love” and “ ’S Wonderful.” Maggie Burton is the cantor who translates Hebrew melodies into pop standards. Geoffrey Jones adds some of the soul that Gershwin picked up uptown. On occasion, the band overwhelmed the singers on opening night.
It’s fun to reacquaint oneself with Gershwin periodically. He wrote a lot and might have done much more had he not left us so early. With Copland and Bernstein, he gave a musical identity to much of what we think of as American imagery.
Vass’ show makes the experience quite enjoyable.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune journalist and critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.