Crowd loves a Gerswhin tune, how about you?
There are winning performances, and then there is Fascinating Rhythm. Performed for a packed, nostalgic crowd at Charleston Music Hall, this tribute to Ira and George Gershwin didn’t win the audience, it killed it.
This was like Mickey Mantle playing T-ball. Muhammad Ali versus Don Knotts. No contest.
Fascinating’s one-two punch is so tailored for the Elderhostel crowd it’s genius. High-gloss singing and dancing trade off with a well-researched, PowerPoint-aided narrative read by Ira Gershwin biographer Phil Furia.
As boys, Ira was the quiet and studious good son while George was always headed for trouble. But by the time George had a hit with “Swanee” at 21, his older brother was handing out towels at their dad’s Turkish bathhouse. Ira teamed up with his brother because he was intrigued by the crossword-like puzzle of putting words to music,
Their differences continued into their adult successes. George was a player — he even had a secret song that he’ pretend to compose on the spot for each new girl. Ira was so shy his wife had to propose to him.
The brother’s first collaboration was “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” which was the first number in the revue sung by local girl Tiffany Parker, taking charge of things in a shimmering blue gown. (There are a lot of costume changes, a lot of sequins in this nearly two-hour show). When Parker, who attends law school across the street, saunters into the audience for “Treat Me Rough” there should probably be EMTs standing by.
Quantity has a quality all its own, and after having been treated to what seems like a lifetime of classic songs, “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “The Man I Love,” the audience gasped when they were reminded that George died at 38.
There’s not a weak singer in the cast. Omar Lopez-Cepero’s rendition of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” was movingly re-purposed as a final tribute from Ira to George. Co-producer Brad Moranz shows his Broadway chops, Laurie Williamson and Michael Demby Cain are spot-on in a Porgy and Bess medley, and the new American Idol Jordin Sparks couldn’t top Amy Banks’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Furia doesn’t sing but in some of the show’s more info-taining moments he explains how songs were written, talk-singing as bandleader Lanny Meyers taps out notes on the keyboard (for instance, demonstrating why Ira begged George for two more opening notes, to give the line: “The way you wear your hat…).
The show was not without its flaws. Former Rockette Jennifer Moranz is clearly a dynamic and darling dancer, but her ditzy act, squeaking out “I’d Rather Charleston,” didn’t seem to get the intended laughs. The light show was something out of a dentist kid’s barmitzvah, ca. 1992.
And sure the seven-piece “orchestral” rendition of Rhapsody in Blue wasn’t the New York Phil, but who knew Ira’s title was inspired by James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black?
So yes, one must admit the show was pretty much coated in cheese. But this time of year, to truly stand out is no mean feat. The weirder a show is, the more it seems to blend in.
But with (unfunky) tap dancing, a synthesizer, hammy sing-a-longs — “You wear pajamas, we’ll wear…nothing” — Fascinating’s seasoned professionalism is an eerie sight to see. Eerily good.
Fascinating Rhythm: A Musical Tribute to George and Ira Gerswhin • Piccolo Spoleto • (1¾ hours) • $29 ($26 for seniors and students) • June 5, 6 at 7 p.m. • Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St. • 724-7305