Press | Reviews

Gershwin show is a rousing comeback

The Miami Herald
Christine Dolen

March 6, 2008

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer was born in Minnesota but has a little history in South Florida. It played Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse in April 2002, and back then audiences and critics agreed that, in the words of a song by George and Ira Gershwin, 'S Wonderful.

Four years later, the show is back, this time at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse. Much has changed since the exuberant, insightful production visited South Florida the first time.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse is not, for the time being, a functioning theater. Arnold Mittelman, its producing artistic director for 25 years until the theater -- then about $4 million in the red -- was abruptly shuttered in 2006, has spent the past two years laying the groundwork for two new theater companies, the American Theater Festival and the National Jewish Theater. And The Soul of Gershwin, with a few cast and band changes but no loss of musical potency, has become symbolic of the kind of theater Mittelman would like to take to audiences in many cities in his return to producing.

The narrated revue by Joseph Vass, who serves as the show's musical director and pianist, is a jazzy, rousing, soulful exploration of the Jewish influences in George Gershwin's music. Actor Michael Paul Levin amiably portrays the man born Jacob Gershovitz, providing bits of Gershwin biography and explaining musical connections, and the storytelling serves its purpose. But it's the music that rightfully carries the show.

Vass and his terrific band Klezmerica -- violinist Carolyn Boulay, woodwind player Brian Grivna, trumpeter Dave Jensen, bass player Chris Bates and drummer Jay Epstein -- apparently can play anything. A little Rhapsody in Blue? No problem. Vass' own contemporary klezmer piece Dybbuk #2? Smashing. Selections from Porgy and Bess? They make you want to hear Gershwin's brilliant folk opera all over again.

The cast of three distinctive and abundantly gifted singers is just as musically versatile.

Bruce Henry sings in Yiddish, scats and dips into a spiritual soulfulness, delivers an Embraceable You full of yearning, makes you want to come along when he declares There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York. Robert Marinoff is the powerhouse guy, a moving cantorial singer who brings operatic power to Summertime -- which he sings first in Yiddish, then English. And Prudence Johnson, whose voice you will instantly recognize if you're a fan of National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion, is a velvet-voiced jazz diva who turns The Man I Love, Someone to Watch Over Me and a brilliantly interpreted It Ain't Necessarily So into reminders of how potent and pleasurable great singing can be.

Before each performance, actor Jack Klugman comes out to rally the audience and offer the opinion that Mittelman, for whom he worked several times at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, is ''a good guy.'' While it's nice to see Klugman onstage again, the sales pitch isn't necessary. The Soul of Gershwin is a thoroughly enjoyable new beginning for two companies and a veteran producer.