At MusicFest Vancouver, The Gershwin Experience hits right notes
Here to Stay: The Gershwin Experience
At the Orpheum Theatre on Friday, August 10. A MusicFest Vancouver presentation
“S’wonderful!” said the man seated behind me, as he rose for intermission.
“S’marvellous,” I replied.
S’curious, though, that a show intent on celebrating the life and music of George Gershwin should have the effect of, well, smallifying its de facto star. Gershwin, who died in 1937, was a restless spirit, a bicoastal sophisticate with a ravenous appetite for musical complexity. In this telling, however, he’s situated squarely—and I do mean squarely—in the American heartland.
Much is made of the small-town origins of two of the show’s stars, pianist Kevin Cole and tap dancer–vocalist Ryan VanDenBoom, who—along with Gershwin’s biographer, Edward Jablonski—hail from Bay City, Michigan. Little is made of Gershwin’s Jewish heritage, although the revelation that his immigrant parents were named Moishe and Rosa Gershowitz got a laugh. That the composer drew much of his inspiration from African-American rhythms also went unsaid.
Jewish, Russian, obsessed with black music, trained by ultra-modernist composer Henry Cowell, enmeshed in a long-standing affair with a married woman, and rumoured to be bisexual, Gershwin is an odd hero for Middle America. His sonic legacy, however, deserves veneration, and that’s what was marvellous about this production. Hearing great music delivered with conviction is never a waste of time.
The standout, both for Cole’s appropriately frenetic soloing and for the gutsy contributions of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Leslie Dala’s baton, was a rendition of Gershwin’s orchestral masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue. The score certainly compensated for the program’s biographical lacunae: Jeanette Jonquil’s keening clarinet introduction situated Gershwin smack in the middle of the klezmer tradition, before an onslaught of syncopation heralded the Jazz Age that the composer helped define.
Vocalist Sylvia McNair was also magnificent, her rich soprano easily negotiating the sinuous curves of “The Man I Love” and “But Not for Me”. It’s a mystery, though, why she didn’t sing “Our Love Is Here to Stay”, which instead was handled by Cole, a personable but undistinguished singer. VanDenBoom’s vocal contributions were also unremarkable, his tap-dancing occasionally out of sync with Dala’s steady pulse. But I’ve got a problem with tap, anyway: what other art form spotlights the studied simulation of incompetence? VanDenBoom’s pratfalls won laughs, but undercut the skill and intelligence of the other performers.
It wouldn’t be hard to devise a more stimulating tribute to Gershwin than Here to Stay. Topping its best moments, though, could be tricky.