BWW Reviews: 'S GERSHWIN Features Outstanding Cast and Choreography but Lacks Concept
There's no doubt that George Gershwin has made a lasting impact on musical theatre. Without him, the world wouldn't have songs like "I Got Rhythm," or shows like Porgy and Bess. And of course, the vast and illustrious songbook of Gershwin tunes has inspired many a jukebox musical or revue.
While I applaud Austin Theatre Project for attempting to create a new, original, world premiere work from the Gershwin songbook, their attempt is quite uneven. Though 'S Gershwin boasts a stellar cast, incredible choreography, and some outstanding arrangements of Gershwin's most iconic tunes, it lacks the concept and cohesion necessary to make it a theatrical event.
Perhaps that's because the show falls so squarely on one person's shoulders. And no, I'm not speaking of George Gershwin. I'm talking about ATP's Co-Artistic Director, David Blackburn. Blackburn, who conceived and wrote the show, also serves as its director, music director, and co-accompanist. And anyone who wears that many hats is bound to run into some problems. For Blackburn, it's the concept. Blackburn clearly knows how to identify quality performers and interesting musical arrangements, but he struggles with stringing the pieces together into an evening that works.
The most glaring problem is his use of anecdotes about Gershwin. While the stories are nice and keep the show from just being a Gershwin concert, each story is read (yes, read, not memorized) off a notebook sitting on a black podium sitting downstage right. Anytime anyone approaches a podium to read something about someone, the mind goes straight to eulogy. The podium business definitely gives moments an unintentional funereal feel. Another odd moment comes in Act II when a story is shared regarding Porgy and Bess. After one of the performers speaks of how Gershwin demanded that Porgy and Bess be cast with African-American actors as opposed to white actors in blackface, we're treated to two non-African-American performers singing "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So." Thankfully they're not in blackface, but the moment still feels odd considering the speech that precedes it.
While the structure of the show has its issues, the incredible talents of the cast are undeniable. The cast of six singers-Isaac Arrieta, Lariena Brown, Laura Galt, Becky Knox, Ryan Smith, and Josh Wechsler-all seem tailor made for Gershwin material. They're all polished, professional performers who don't just sing songs; they interpret them. They each have a solo number or two, but the true highlights of the show are when they get to perform together. An a cappella version of "Someone to Watch Over Me," complete with five-part harmony, is goosebump-inducing and ovation-worthy. Choreographer and featured dancer Meghan Bowman also deserves praise, particularly for her beautiful and emotive routine to "Rhapsody in Blue."
While the show itself could be stronger, 'S Gershwin features performers at the top of their game. The evening might not be entirely 'swonderful or embraceable, but it certainly has its moments.
'S GERSHWIN, produced by Austin Theatre Project, closed Sunday, June 29th. For more information on Austin Theatre Project, please visit www.austintheatreproject.org