Brother George burned the Gershwin brand into the American consciousness during his brief and frenetic time on Earth. It’s George’s music that dances in our head when we hear the name. We forget that Ira burnished George’s melodies with memorable and simple lyrics. “ ‘S Wonderful,” isn’t it — how a song taps into our toes and we soon realize, hey, “I Got Rhythm.” Indeed, I do, and try as they might, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
George, of course, paid for his immortal genius. He never was truly satisfied and died of a brain tumor at age 38. Ira — shoved to the background — had to comfort himself with a long and happy life, a beautiful wife, countless accolades and a lovely home in Beverly Hills.
Joseph Vass, the pianist and playwright, brings Ira out of the shadows in the new show “Words By … Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook.” Actor Ari (Ira spelled backward) Hoptman plays Gershwin with vocalists T. Mychael Rambo and Jennifer Grimm digging into the lyrics of more than two dozen songs.
The result is a greater appreciation for the lyricist (Ira in particular, the pantheon of the American Songbook in general) and a few neat revelations. For example, Hoptman’s Ira tells us that he wrote the words, “If happy little bluebirds fly; Beyond the rainbow; Why, oh why can’t I?” the gorgeous coda to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” composed by Harold Arlen and written by Gershwin’s childhood friend Yip Harburg.
Hoptman slouches into an avuncular, self-deprecating style as Gershwin narrates how he learned his craft through literature and listening to the work of such librettists as W.S. Gilbert. Vass introduces several songs that show that dense and tricky word play at work, but he has Hoptman make the larger point that Gershwin sought to write in an American vernacular.
He rarely liked poetry as the text for a song because poetry — good or bad — didn’t reflect the conversational manner. His lyrics bounced delicately along a string of notes, phrases landing lightly and then occasionally stretching with drama. A line such as “It Ain’t Neccesarily So” has such perfect cadence with a five-syllable word tucked inside the three shorties, with that open “oh” at the end.
It sounds simple, but that is the genius of genius.
Vass leads a really fine four-piece combo of guitarist Christopher Olson, drummer Jay Epstein and Christopher Bates on bass.
Rambo and Grimm sing with restraint in David Ellenstein’s modest and simple staging. Rarely does anything get showy though each singer has moments such as Rambo on “Isn’t It a Pity?” and “Oh Bess Oh Where’s My Bess?” and Grimm with “Long Ago and Far Away” by Jerome Kern and the “Saga of Jenny” by Kurt Weill.
I might have liked to hear something from “Of Thee I Sing,” Ira’s Pulitzer winner, and I could have done with fewer gimmick songs. File these under nits. Vass has created a charming entertainment with obvious affection for one of America’s often-sung but underappreciated musical masters.