BWW Reviews: WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN: A Happy Night at the Theater
"A musical photo album that rewards the audience with one incredibly happy night at the theater."
Two famous brothers. One historic collaboration. Gershwin. Theirs was a name that would forever represent the early twentieth century music of the Jazz Age by capturing the heart and soul of the American people. Music drove George, the charismatic life-of-the-party musician who created sophisticated compositions like An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, while Ira, the older and quieter of the two, was happier in the company of words. Together they created a prolific body of work that includes some of the most beloved standards today like "Fascinating Rhythm," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and "Love is Here to Stay."
Ira is the focus of Joseph Vass' musical play, WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN, now receiving a delicious staging at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. For a theatre geek like me who loves a good lyric more than I can express, this production is heavenly. It is a musical photo album that rewards the audience with one terrifically happy night at the theater.
Jake Broder takes on the role of the famous lyricist and narrates the evening. With humility and a sweet old-world charm, he shares the stories behind many of the songs he wrote with his brother, as well as others he collaborated with after George's untimely death. I love behind-the-scenes stories and couldn't get enough of it. It isn't easy to carry an evening like this and Broder is that one-in-a-million character actor who makes it look easy.
To go along with the engaging narrative, Elijah Rock and Angela Teek emerge from the wings to provide the vocal counterpoint to the show. They're accompanied by one of the best jazz combos you'll hear on a stage anywhere in LA, consisting of musical director Kevin Toney at the piano, Terry Wollman on electric and acoustic guitar, John B. Williams on bass, and Greg Webster on drums.
For a little over two hours they showcase Ira's unparalleled ability to write lyrics in the contemporary American language of the day. His up-tempo jazz standards, comedy songs, and rich ballads reveal an unparalleled range of emotion. No one could express the sentiment of unrequited love in a torch song like Ira. One of his finest, "The Man That Got Away" from A Star is Born, closes Act I of the show, and there are moments when Teek sounds exactly like Judy Garland, an unexpected surprise in an already gloriously-voiced performance. Rock also moves easily between styles, particularly turning his arias from Porgy and Bess into passionate showstoppers that make this musical evening ring with elegant sophistication.
I once heard Artistic Director Barbara Beckley discuss what she looks for in a play or musical for the Colony. "Tell me a story; make me care," is what she said. WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN fulfills those prerequisites beautifully. For the music, for the stories, and most importantly, for the words, this is one musical event that you don't want to miss.
Elijah Rock and Jake Broder