Seeing songs titled “Heyser Bulgar” or “Noach’s Teive” in your theater program can be a bit offsetting. It’s even more disorienting when you thought the show you’re about to see was full of classic jazz ballads, not Hebrew chants. Luckily, I had a good 10 minutes to skim the synopsis of The Soul of Gershwin before the lights at Park Square Theatre dimmed, giving me just enough time to connect the dots between these seemingly random song choices and the story that was about to unfold.
George Gershwin was Jewish. That’s a no-brainer. Another obvious fact: his music completely transformed the world of jazz. But just how intricately those two things overlapped is where things get interesting. After quitting his job as a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley in New York City in 1915, Gershwin began writing songs of his own—at the ripe age of 17. With fresh ears and an abundance of creativity, Gershwin sought to break the mold of major-key melodies heralding simple storylines—the formula for popular songs during that time. To do this, he channeled the sounds that surrounded him daily: the traditional Jewish music of neighborhood synagogues mingling with the soulful Baptist hymns of nearby churches. What resulted was genius.
It’s not an obvious combination, Yiddish chants and bluesy gospel music. But as history has proven, it worked—really well. In The Soul of Gershwin, Joseph Vass (author/composer/musical director/pianist) uses a variety of ways to show how Gershwin married these two seemingly opposite genres. He has Gershwin, played by a New York accent-wielding, double breasted-suit-wearing Michael Paul Levin, narrate his life to the audience. He has the band, Klezmerica (Chris Bates on bass, Jay Epstein on drums, Adam Meckler on trumpet, Dale Mendenhall on clarinet and saxophone, Gary Schulte on violin), play breathtaking interludes of “klezmer” songs, all whirlwinds in tempo and awe-inspiring in difficulty. He weaves in quotes from admiring musicians (Herbie Hancock). But perhaps the most powerful demonstration of how intertwined the genres are comes when Vass partners a traditional Hebrew melody with one of Gershwin’s tunes, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The melodies aren’t just similar; they’re exactly the same.
Obviously, music is at the heart of this show, and its success heavily rides upon the performers’ ability to capture the passion of Gershwin’s hits as well as the depth of the traditional Hebrew songs. All of the musicians in Klezmerica do a phenomenal job at switching back and forth between secular and sacred (the transition from “Embraceable You” to “Noach’s Teive,” a Hebrew song about Noah’s arc, can’t be an easy one), and Levin struts his stuff as Gershwin in an admirable manner. Maggie Burton’s (the cantor) operatic range fit well when singing complex Yiddish cadences, but was ill suited for the sultry jazz numbers. Prudence Johnson (the chanteuse) took a while to loosen up in her role as nightclub diva, but managed to channel her inner soul sister by the night. The stand out performer was T. Mychael Rambo, local-theater behemoth and stunning vocalist. His tender yet powerful voice sent shivers throughout the audience, and made you wish for more solos to showcase his sexy, sweet sound.
In the world of music, George Gershwin was the ultimate innovator. He truly paved the way for jazz to grow and transform, morphing over time into many of the genres we treasure today. That his background and methodology were so complex only add to this incredible story, and The Soul of Gershwin offers the chance to see another side of the American Klezmer; to further appreciate everything this genius composer did to bring more magic to music.
The Soul of Gershwin
Through January 1, 2012
Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul, 651-291-7005