Hershey Felder’s “George Gershwin Alone” plays like one of the composer’s memorable melodies: direct, uncomplicated, and delightful. In this solo show about the man and his music, Felder shifts easily from storytelling to performing at the piano. On the Paramount Center Mainstage, he uses Gershwin’s tunes to create transitions between biographical tales: Gershwin as a 10-year-old stickball player who becomes enchanted by music; the composer’s Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, pulled by the promise of American streets paved with gold; Al Jolson, bringing fame to the 21-year-old Gershwin with his rendition of “Swanee.”
What makes this 100-minute production more than a musical revue, however, is Felder’s fascination with Gershwin’s compositional technique. Although he’s been performing “George Gershwin Alone” for more than a decade — the show bowed on Broadway in 2001 and played the American Repertory Theater twice, in 2002 and ’03 — Felder’s admiration for the composer is obviously deeply felt. His eagerness to share his knowledge is endearing, and his educational riffs never feel pedantic.
In his program notes, Felder describes “George Gershwin Alone” as part of a Composer Sonata that includes Felder’s “Beethoven, as I Knew Him,” “Monsieur Chopin,” and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein,” which recently completed a run at the Paramount. He describes the Gershwin segment as a rondo, “straightforward and joyful,” and that is exactly the tone he sets in this show.
“George Gershwin Alone” opens on an impressionistic set by Yael Pardess, with oversize programs, a giant mirror, and projections appearing to float near the piano at center stage. Felder begins with a brief lesson on intervals: Using “Porgy and Bess” and “Swanee” as examples, he demonstrates how the composer defied expectations for the direction of a musical progression and found hooks for his songs. When talking about “An American in Paris,” Felder displays a few of the various horns Gershwin might have sampled before finding the one that sounded most like a Parisian taxicab. Later, he mischievously makes clear that two notes Gershwin uses in “Summertime” take on an entirely new meaning when John Williams employs them for the theme to the movie “Jaws.”
GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE
Felder explores Gershwin’s personal life with stories about his impossible-to-please mother, his friend and assistant Kay Swift, his creative partner and older brother Ira, and his death at 38 from a brain tumor. He also points out Gershwin’s disappointment with the critics’ dismissal of his orchestral work, and offers a wrenching recitation of Henry Ford’s brutally anti-Semitic and racist article directed at Gershwin. But Felder never judges the composer, choosing instead to use the anecdotes to illuminate the music. The stories enrich such chestnuts as “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Felder closes the evening with “Rhapsody in Blue” and then returns for an encore, inviting the audience to join him in “Embraceable You.” Then he takes requests — on opening night, that meant “ ’S Wonderful,” “The Man I Love,” and “Summertime” — and sends a happy audience home.