BWW reviews: Words by Ira Gershwin Articulates the Alchemy of a Song
Portland Stage's stylish and stirring production of Words by Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook offers fascinating insight into the alchemy of a song. Joseph Vass' 2013 play examines the professional life and art of "the other Gershwin," George's brother, his lyricist, and the creator of hundreds of popular standards, which have come to be part of The Great American Songbook.
Vass' work is styled as "a play with music," and though the evening features twenty-six of Ira Gershwin's compositions of a broad and dazzling range, these songs are so organically integrated into the fabric of the play that they never stop the action. Indeed, as befitting a lyricist who understood the impact and subtleties of words, Vass' play segues seamlessly from monologue to song and back.
Using Ira Gershwin, himself, as confessional narrator, the drama takes a look not only at the lyricist's career, but also at the magic of the artistic process - of marrying words and music to create what Gershwin calls " thought encapsulated in feeling." The song, he postulates, is a mosaic comprised of so many exquisite little parts - words and notes. He likens himself to a "jeweler" whose precision and craft enable the tiny fragments of thought and melody to coalesce into a whole.
That the play is able to mirror that magical synthesis is a tribute not only to Vass' naturalness of style, but also to the excellence of Portland Stage's performing and production ensemble. As Ira Gershwin, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (who created the role in the South Beach, CA, world premiere) gives a note-perfect performance. His stage persona bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Gershwin, and he captures flawlessly the lyricist's soft-spoken, self-effacing demeanor and distinctive Lower Eastside New York accent. This is a quiet, subtle, self-possessed performance which requires the audience to listen intently to the actor's - and Gershwin's - words. And when in Act II, Mongiardo-Cooper finally does sing several solos in his clear, lyric tenor, he brings down the house.
He is admirably supported by Amy Bodnar as the Chanteuse and Robert Yacko as the Crooner. Both are inventive and penetrating interpreters of song, and what they occasionally lack in vocal power, they more than amply supply in nuance and élan. Both move comfortably through a wide range of musical idioms, mastering everything from blues, torch songs, and jazz opera to the biting satire of Gershwin hits like Union Square or Tchaikovsky.
Musical accompaniment is provided by a brilliant, sensitive jazz band - Jacob Forbes on drums, Pat Keane on guitar, Jim Lyden on bass - led by musical director Hans Indigo Spencer on piano and saxophone. They play with a warm, rich sound, pleasing attentiveness to musical phrasing, and great collaborative skill.
The musical and dramatic values are beautifully enhanced by the stage production, itself - one of Portland Stage's most attractive in recent seasons. Anita Stewart's set is comprised of a small parlor area and a bandstand against a backdrop of subtly colored geometric skim panels, on which are sometimes projected historical images. The overall effect, which surely takes its cue from the mosaic metaphor, reminds of Mondrian and other abstract modernists contemporary with Gershwin.
Stephen Jones' lighting is a palette of velvety pastels - pinks, mauves, blues, and the occasionAl Golden tone - all of which transform the set in atmospheric washes that embody the musical transitions. Hugh Hanson's modish costumes similarly choose colors which harmonize with the décor and complete the elegant fluidity of the visual concept. David Ellenstein directs with comparable musicality, with an astute sense of the ebb and flow of words and music, a tasteful restraint, and a finespun wit.
Together these artists bring to life the work of one of America's often overshadowed and undervalued geniuses. Words by Ira Gershwin gives us not only a deeper appreciation for the artistic achievements of a great lyricist, but it illuminates the complex craft of song writing and calls attention to the poetry without which no lasting melody can take flight.