The play may indeed be the thing, at least most of the time, but it’s the songs and the singers (and not the show’s rather uninspired format) that make the Los Angeles Premiere of Joseph Vass’s self-described “musical play” Words By Ira Gershwin worth a drive to Burbank’s Colony Theatre.
The songs in question all have one important thing in common, their lyricist, without whose contributions the melodies of Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, and most famously Ira’s younger brother George, would have been just “da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da.”
The Colony’s 2013 World Premiere Falling For Make Believe was an honest-to-goodness original book-musical look at the careers and songs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
Words By Ira Gershwin opts for a less interesting format, giving us something akin to a “Distinguished Speaker Series” entry, though instead of the real Magic Johnson or Jane Pauley or Shirley MacLaine showing up to talk about their lives and careers, Words By Ira Gershwin features Jake Broder standing (or more frequently sitting) in for Ira, the real-life Mr. Gershwin having passed on twenty-three years ago at the age of eighty-six.
There’s not a trace of extrovert extraordinaire Louis Prima, the role that won Broder the L.A. Theater Award trifecta (the Ovation, the LADCC, and the LA Weekly), in the triple-threat’s soft-spoken Ira, whose his nerdy spectacles, professorial attire, and distinctive Lower Eastside vowels are the farthest thing from Louie.
Broder takes us back to Ira’s New York City childhood and a family piano that soon made it clear which Gershwin brother was not meant to be a composer. “For George it was the music, for me it was words,” Ira tells us, and then goes on to describe how hits like “I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Long Ago And Far Away,” and a couple dozen more were conceived, gestated, and delivered by a single lyricist and a variety of composers.
Ira even warbles a bit himself, mostly in Act Two, but it’s in the vocal performances of “Crooner” Elijah Rock and “Chanteuse” Angela Teek, jumping in to join Ira from another time, another place, that Words By Ira Gershwin takes off.
Whenever it’s Rock, the brilliant star of the Colony’s Breath And Imagination: The Story Of Roland Hayes, once again showing off some of the most gorgeous—and versatile—pipes in town (and tapping to rival a Nicholas Brother), or the phenomenal Teek, whom I haven’t seen since the Pasadena Playhouse’s Ray Charles Live back in 2007, soaring to equal vocal heights, Words By Ira Gershwin takes flight, and fortunately, with Rock and Teek either soloing or duetting most of the evening’s twenty-six songs, that is quite often indeed.
It’s not that Ira doesn’t have interesting stories to tell. He does, including anecdotes surrounding his extended stay in Hollywood, the birth of Porgy And Bess, answers to the oft-asked question “Which Came First” (for George and Ira it was the music), his thoughts on the words he wrote to his brother’s melodies (they’re not poems), and a fascinating tidbit about the closing stanza of Yip Harburg’s “Over The Rainbow.” (Hint: It’s not Harburg who wrote “If happy little bluebirds fly…”)
Broder’s performance is a charming one, and once Vass’s “play” lets him sing, he does so quite nicely indeed (in Ira’s own voice one would presume), a duet with guitarist Terry Wollman proving a particular standout.
Some lesser known Ira Gershwin gems (“Blah Blah Blah,” “Tchaikovsky (And Other Russians),” and “By Strauss”) add a humorous note to the two-plus hour evening. And no one will be complaining about hearing “Fascinating Rhythm,” “The Man Who Got Away,” “Saga Of Jenny,” “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Love Is Here To Stay,” or a trio of songs from Porgy And Bess (“with additional lyrics by DuBose Heward”) sung to cheer-inspiring perfection by Rock and Teek.
Director David Ellenstein knows how to coax the best from his performers, having helmed Words By Ira Gerswhin’s World Premiere at his own North Coast Repertory down Solana Beach way and later up the coast in Seattle.
Musical director Kevin Toney conducts and plays piano in the show’s jazztastic onstage band, accompanied by Wollman on electric and acoustic guitars, John B. Williams on bass, and Greg Webster on drums, the quartet performing to Vass’s musical arrangements.
David Potts’ elegant, stylish, monochrome set, Jared A. Sayeg’s as always stunning lighting design, Drew Dalzell’s pitch perfect sound design mix, properties designer/set dresser John M. McElveney’s just-right bevy of props, Orlando de la Paz’s lovely scenic art, and above all Dianne K. Graebner’s elegant costumes (Teek’s gowns in particular), give Words By Ira Gershwin a fabulous look and sound.
Casting is by Amy Lieberman. Rebecca Eisenberg is production stage manager.
Words By Ira Gershwin has a fascinating story to tell, and its singers/songs could not be more wow-worthy. Still, I can’t help wishing that playwright Vass had come up with a more compelling framework for what is essentially a fireside chat tacked on to a musical revue.
Words By Ira Gershwin brings the Colony’s fortieth season with almost—but not quite the bang—its four decades deserve.
Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.
April 23, 2105
Photos: Michael Lamont