Press | Reviews


The Miami Herald
Howard Cohen

April 8, 2002

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer works on so many levels one might have to see it twice to grasp all the complexities. On its most basic level, Soul of Gershwin functions as a narrated concert. Give it some decent voices - and this show has three mellifluous ones, especially the bell-pure Bruce Henry - add a virtuosic violinist (Yuri Merzhevsky), and that alone would make it worth the price of admission.

Among the 23 featured tunes are Someone to Watch Over Me, Summertime and 'S Wonderful. But the show's called The Soul of Gershwin, with 'soul' being the operative word, and that adds another dimension that makes this production one of the more instructive, fascinating and entertaining presentations to pass through South Florida recently. Playing Gershwin and addressing the audience as he reflects on his career, actor Michael Paul Levin voices one of the composer's theories: "Mediocre songwriters borrow, great songwriter's steal." The real Gershwin, who died from a brain tumor in 1937 at age 38, was influenced by European classical music as well as the black-derived blues and jazz drifting out of New York nightclubs. And the Soul of Gershwin shows how "jazz borrowed back. Gershwin's original melodies were Jewish, owing partly to their deep emotions. The music was also arranged as the Jewish immigrants talked, "with the strange rhythms and accents." This is best illustrated in the 90-minute revue's second act. First, cantorial singer Maggie Burton sings Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), the traditional blessing for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. Then jazz chanteuse Prudence Johnson immediately begins the bluesy and familiar It Ain't Necessarily So from the landmark Broadway musical, Porgy and Bess, and the source of Gershwin's melody becomes obvious.

The effect is akin to the proverbial light bulb going on in the audience's collective head. The origins of the standard Summertime, covered by everyone from Miles Davis to Janis Joplin, is revealed in similar fashion in the revelatory Soul of Gershwin. Show creator Joseph Vass' points out the musical juxtapositions between Jewish and black influences in Gershwin's music (it's also present in the work other great Jewish composers such as Harold Arlen, Kurt Weil and Irving Berlin) to illustrate the universalities people - in this case, minorities with common hardships - share. Soul of Gershwin is told in nonlinear style, thus functioning as a cultural commentary. To its credit, it does so without an overly heavy hand. People-pleasers are seldom this intelligent.

(Henry, Burton and Merzhevsky's last performance was Sunday; T. Michael Robert Marinoff and Todd Reynolds are the replacements).