How much more would George Gershwin have accomplished if he hadn’t died of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38?
One asks that question after seeing playwright-performer Hershey Felder’s “George Gershwin Alone” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s intimate Thrust Stage.
In this engrossing one-man show, the multi-talented Felder sings, plays piano and spins the fascinating story of one of America’s greatest, most original composers.
Felder goes into stories behind works like 1924’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was inspired in part by the rhythm of a train. He touches upon some aspects of composition such as the change from a minor to a major key in “Swanee,” his early hit song sung by Al Jolson.
He describes some milestones of Gershwin’s life such as his first musical job as a rehearsal pianist for the Ziegfeld Follies at the age of 19.
Dissecting songs like “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Summertime,” he spends quite a bit of time on “Porgy and Bess,” 1935’s landmark full-length work that was such a departure from musical theater of the time yet not quite like opera. Though highly regarded today, it wasn’t well received by the major critics then.
Gershwin and his older brother, Ira, were close collaborators, with George writing the music and Ira writing the lyrics. Ironically, the last song George wrote was “Love Is Here to Stay,” with Ira writing the lyrics after George’s death.
Directed by Joel Zwick, Felder presents all of this information in a highly entertaining fashion. He plays the Steinway grand piano well and sings in a pleasant baritone.
One highlight of this show comes when Felder reverently displays the original annotated score for “Porgy.” On a more dissonant note, he recites a diatribe against Jewish musicians, especially Gershwin, in a publication backed by Henry Ford.
Although the show itself runs about 90 minutes without intermission, it goes on for another half hour as Felder chats with the audience, leads singalongs and, at opening night, invites a man in the audience to imitate Ethel Merman singing “I Got Rhythm.” Also at opening night he introduced Mike Strunsky of San Francisco, Ira’s nephew and the trustee and executor of Ira’s musical estate.
Felder, who also has created shows about Beethoven, Chopin and Bernstein, premiered “George Gershwin Alone” in 2000. He said that this run might be its last. It’s not to be missed.
Its run was extended through July 7 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.