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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Jack Zink, Theater Writer

April 9, 2002

Michael Paul Levin portrays George Gershwin with such an easy flair that he seems guided by George's ghost. Indeed, the composer's spirit inhabits the entire Coconut Grove Playhouse stage, where Levin and eight other perfonners are conducting a musical seance called The Soul of Gershwin.

The convocation is in full swing by the time Levin, cigar in hand, describes the tune Noach's Teive, written by Abraham Goldfaden (known as the father of Yiddish theater). Singer Maggie Burton finishes the song's last, plaintive phrases and Prudence Johnson replaces her at the microphone while Levin, as Gershwin, gleefully admits he decided to use the tune himself.

Gershwin stops short, beams with pride and nods to Johnson as she begins to warble "S'wonnnn-derful, s'marrrrr-velous." The audience gasps. It's Goldfaden's riff, lighter and more seductive but unmistakable, before the song takes off into Gershwin's own interpolation. "Mediocre composers borrow," says Levin, still in his Gershwin character. "Great composers steal."

There are several moments like that in The Soul of Gershwin, the treasure-laden musical revue Joseph Vass created four years ago during the centennial of Gershwin's birth. Vass' show explores the seldom-mentioned Yiddish roots in Gershwin's music and joyously compares them with the composer's better-known blues and jazz influences.

The revue originally was called Gershwin the Klezmer, and the cast album bears that name. It's now subtitled "The Musical Joumey of an American Klezmer" -- but the breadth and appeal of the production's sheer musicality is unbeatable.

Gershwin trivia provides a delicious assortment of intellectual appetizers for music snobs, but the real strength of The Soul of Gershwin is the music itself, and the interpretive power ofVass' musical ensemble. It's heard first in the stunning opening line of Rhapsody in Blue by clarinetist Bruce Thomton. Called "Portamento" in the program, it's a musical term that describes sliding pitch, a gradual and continuous change from one tone to another. The 20Žsecond riff foretells kaleidoscopic musical mood swings over the next two hours.

Thomton barely finishes the clarinet lick when violinist Yuri Merzhevsky launches into Vodka, a blazing klezmer instrumental from Gershwin's forgotten 1925 flop musical Song of the Flame. Merzhevsky attacks the piece with uncompromising skill and unfettered virtuosity. He continues cutting the air throughout the show as ~ his bow were a rapier. (Merzhevsky, from the original 1998 cast, is being replaced by Todd Reynolds starting today).

Burton, Johnson and Bruce Henry make up The Soul of Gershwin's vocal trio. The klezmer band is a quintet with Vass its pianist, Jay Maier Epstein on drums and Michael O'Brien on a string bass with electric pickup. Clarinetist Thomton doubles on saxophone. Levin's acting performance is natty, but if there is any star in this constellation, it's Merzhevsky's violin.

Roughly half the music is Gershwin's own, including Johnson's fetching renditions of The Man I Love, Someone to Watch Over Me and It Ain't Necessarily So. Henry joins her on I Got Rhythm and solos on Embraceable You. Burton sings Summertime, starting in Yiddish and finishing in English. She leads the non-Gershwin repertoire, perfonning Yiddish ballads and synagogue music that were Gershwin's source material. The trio works in unison on I'm On My Way, The Life of a Rose and a selection of Tin Pan Alley ditties.

The musical blend, like the Yiddish/English verses of Summertime, is a seamless fabric of klezmer, cantorial chant, blues, jazz and American pop. In the four years since its first concert presentation, creator Vass has morphed the experience into musical theater. He can thank director Peter Moore, too, for making sure The Soul of Gershwin plays like first-class entertainment instead of a master class.

By the way, Gershwin's definition of a great composer applies to Goldfaden, too: He stole from Offenbach, among others.