As a former clarinet player, when a show opens with a solo clarinet center stage, I know it's the show for me. Specifically, the thrilling portamento from Rhapsody in Blue* (did I mention this show is a music lesson?). Soon George Gershwin himself (as personified by Michael Paul Levin) appears and begins to tell us about his life and influences. He talks about the links between klezmer, jazz, blues, Jewish, and African American spiritual music. But he doesn't just talk about it, he shows us, as we hear a phrase of one next to a phrase of the other in a way that the similarities are obvious. It's just fascinating to see the connection between this familiar 20th Century American music and more traditional forms.
|Maggie Burton, Maud Hixson, Geoffrey Jones, and Michael Paul|
Levin with Klezmerica (photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)
But what makes the show is this fan-freakin-tastic band known as Klezmerica, who have performed as a band outside the show and recorded some of their music. I am going to name them all because they're all such incredible musicians, both individually and collectively: Nathan Norman on drums, Doug Haining on clarinet and sax, Adam Meckler on trumpet, Carolyn Boulay on violin, and Chris Bates on upright bass. They are of course led by creator, playwright, music director, and arranger Joseph Vass on piano. The band sounds great playing the range of styles in the show, but they really shine on the traditional klezmer music, in particular the song Heyser Bulgar that I thought would never end, and I hoped it wouldn't (you can listen to a snippet of it here).
There's a line in the show about George first experiencing klezmer music as played by street musicians under the elevated train tracks in his native Brooklyn. Set designer Dean Holzman has applied that concept to the two-level set with metal scaffolding, stairs, and balcony. Director Peter Moore makes great use of the space and seamlessly weaves the music and George's musings on music, history, and culture.
The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer is worth seeing just for the fantastic music alone, but as a bonus it also enlightens about the origins of this music. It left me wanting more, but I guess thats happens when a brilliant artist dies way before his time. The world is left wanting more. But at least we can continue to perform, listen to, and celebrate the music he left us. The Soul of Gershwin continues through December 31.
*You can watch a performance of Rhapsody in Blue by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic on youtube. I dare you to stop before the entire 17 minutes is up, and then to not repeatedly hit replay to listen to this masterpiece over and over again.