Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2006
I am on record as disapproving of revuesicals. They are not really theatre and not really a concert. Generally, they drive me nuts. But this one I found genuinely enjoyable, largely because of the excellent material culled primarily from the collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin.
In its current form, Fascinatin’ Gershwin was conceived and written by Robert Cacioppo, with current director Michael Marotta, choreographer Artie d’Alessio, and with original orchestrations by Victoria Casella. Marotta’s program notes date its genesis back twenty-five years to when these four friends got talking about their love of Gershwin during a rehearsal for The Fantasticks. The show has been performed many times in the intervening quarter century with casts and audiences of various sizes. Here Marotta and d’Alessio, the original choreographer, have teamed up with six talented young performers to present it at the Theater Barn.
Cacioppo’s script conforms closely to the well-worn revuesical format: take an even number of attractive young men and woman, put them in evening clothes on a stylish set, give them lots of songs to sing and a few tid-bits of trivia, let the whole thing play 90-120 minutes and expect applause. Fascinatin’ Gershwin attempts no higher goal than this.
So thank God its Gershwin! The cavalcade of familiar hits, performed nicely by the ensemble (did I mention before that they are attractive young people?) kept the opening night audience happy. D’Alessio’s choreography is not ground-breaking, but it is peppy and frequently amusing. Marotta makes sure the performers keep on the move and that they each get a chance to nip backstage for some water and a rest from time to time.
While billed as a revue of the work of George’s music, it by default becomes a revue of his brother Ira’s lyrics as well, since the two collaborated almost exclusively between their big Broadway success Lady Be Good in 1924 and George’s untimely death in 1937. Indeed Ira is the lyricist on all but two numbers in the show.
Ira (1896-1983) outlived George (1898-1937) by nearly a half-century and during those years he collaborated on songs with all of the leading Broadway and Hollywood composers of the time, being nominated three times for an Academy Award. Three of his collaborations with other composers are included: Tchaikovsky (with Kurt Weill, 1941), The Man That Got Away (with Harold Arlen, 1956), and I Can’t Get Started (with Vernon Dukes, 1936).
Ira and George were born Israel and Jacob Gershowitz to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in New York City. George started his musical career at the age of thirteen, and by the time he was eighteen he’d had his first song published. His first big hit was Swanee (Lyrics by Irving Cesar, 1919) popularized by Al Jolson. Wanting to earn his own fame and not just trade on his baby brother’s name, it was under the pen name of Arthur Francis that Ira wrote the lyrics for his first Broadway show Two Little Girls in Blue with Vincent Youmans in 1921. But once the brothers began to collaborate they seldom wrote with other partners.
Their 1931 collaboration Of Thee I Sing was the first Broadway musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1935 the brothers collaborated with DuBose Hayward to create the ground-breaking American folk opera Porgy and Bess. George also had success as a classical composer with Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), and his Second Rhaposdy (1932) which he premiered with the Boston Symphony under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky. In 1985 the U.S. Congress posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Gershwin brothers, only the third time songwriters have been so honored.
The cast is anchored by Robert McCaffrey, an actor who has appeared on and off at the Barn for many years. He acts as the “host” of the “party” which serves as the pretext for getting three couples together in a room with a bar and a piano. McCaffrey has an open, boyish face and a nice singing voice. The other two men on the stage – Keith Hines and Eric Richardson – also sang nicely, but failed to impress me with any unique talent or charm.
On the other hand all three women were eye-catching for different reasons. Alison Bacewicz is a tall, cool blonde with a good voice and a hint of a flare for comedy. Morgan Forehand is a striking brunette with an impressive and versatile voice. And Megan Rozak is a little bundle of dynamite with a strong set of pipes and plenty of personality. While they are very different shapes and sizes, each looks lovely in a gown by Jacci Fredenburg – Bacewicz in red, Forehand in royal blue, and Rozak in plum.
Cacioppo includes numbers from many of the shows mentioned above. The show opens with musical director Jeremy Fenn-Smith soloing on Rhapsody in Blue. McCaffrey has fun with Swanee early in the first act, followed quickly by Lady Be Good. The first half concludes with the title song and “Love Is Sweeping the Country” from “Of Thee I Sing.” The second act opens with It Ain’t Necessarily So and Summertime, the latter beautifully sung by Forehand, from Porgy and Bess.
Fun is had when McCaffrey and Rozak team up for Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off (1937) and when the entire cast gets in the spirit with a combination of Vodka (Lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II, 1925) and Tchaikovsky (Music by Kurt Weill, 1941). Who knew that Gershwin, Gershwin, Harbach, Hammerstein, and Weill could posthumously collaborate on a loopy bottle dance?
Rozak gets to torch it up in both acts with The Man I Love (1924) and The Man That Got Away (Music by Harold Arlen, 1956). Bacewicz gets to shine in her solos Someone to Watch Over Me (1926) and But Not for Me (1930).
Abe Phelps has designed a sophisticated set which makes the Theater Barn stage look considerably wider than it actually is and makes nice use of many levels. As usual, his faux finishes on the floors are to die for. Allen E. Phelps’ lighting design is richly colored and compliments his father’s set and Fredenburg’s costumes nicely.
All in all, Fascinatin’ Gershwin provides a pleasant two hours of air-conditioned entertainment for a hot summer’s night. It is squeaky clean and provides a good way to introduce youngsters to the glory of the Gershwins’ music and lyrics.
Fascinatin' Gershwin runs through August 6 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. Performances are on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 & 8:30 p.m., and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20.00 for all evening performances, and $18.00 for the Sunday matinee. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006