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Learn How Tunes Evolved

The Palm Beach Post
Hap Erstein

April 20, 2002

Most musical revues just pay tribute to composers. The Soul of Gershwin: the Musical Journey of an American Klezmer also celebrates thievery. For as actor Michael Paul Levin says, while flicking his cigar in a gesture that owes as much to George Burns as it does to George Gershwin, "Mediocre songwriters borrow, great songwriters steal."

It is with such grand larceny that this thought-provoking little musical entertainment traces the influences that bubbled inside the head of the pioneering music-maker who left an extraordinary legacy of American jazz, Broadway show tunes, classical compositions and folk opera in his all too-brief 39 years. What the show's creator, Joseph Vass, has devised is a tuneful two-hour lecture-concert, in which the roots of Gershwin's inspirations in religious and secular Jewish and black music are charted. As in Hershey Felder's George Gershwin Alone, which recently left West Palm Beach's Cuillo Centre, having the genesis of familiar music pointed out to us ensures that we will now hear it with a fresh, more appreciative ear.

For instance, the character-establishing, Bible-mocking number for the villainous Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess, It Ain't Necessarily So, did not spring full-blown from Gershwin's head. Rather, it was borrowed from a blessing known as Avinu Malkeinu, traditionally sung during the Jewish new year service. Back-to-back, with the cantor-like Robert Marinoff booming out the blessing in Hebrew, followed by T. Mychael Rambo insinuating his way around the Catfish Row Scripture lesson, it becomes a rich discovery for us all. The same goes for influences from traditional Yiddish melodies and black gospel. It IS predisely because Gershwin allowed himself to be the crucible in which these musical elements blended that he forged such a distinctly American sound. To be called an "American klezmer" suggests a direct link with the sinuous, celebratory, often peppy sound of clarinet, fiddle, bass and piano that aurally defines the immigrant world that Gershwin grew up in. In The Soul of Gershwin, it is embodied with joyous abandon by a Minnesota band called Klezmerica, led by pianist Vass. While they are frequently the center of attention, they also accompany three first-rate voices--Marinoff, Rambo and a chanteuse named Prudence Johnson. The singers step up to strategically placed microphones and caress such Gershwin standards as S'Wonderful, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and Summertime. If there is a drawback, it is this too formal format, which keeps the evening frozen in concert mode, rather than something more spontaneous and theatrical, but that is ultimately a minor complaint. Vass serves up the usual Gershwin hits, but he also reaches deep into the trunk for a few selections that are guaranteed to be less familiar to audiences. Early on, fiddler Todd Reynolds launches into a haunting melody called Vodka from an early Gershwin Broadway dud show. And while an attempt to musicalize the Jewish ghost story The Dybbuk ran aground when Gershwin could not obtain the rights, Vass contributes his own exquisite strains in a piece called simply Dybbuk #2. The Soul of Gershwin is refreshingly absent of the cliches associated with revues, being more concerned with making its musicological points,but not to the detriment of the entertainment value. If you want to sit back and enjoy a Gershwin concert, this Coconut Grove booking fills that bill. Do not be surprised, however, if you also learn a few things along the way.