Music always reflects the era from which it came. Really good music, though, seems to move beyond the specifics of its time to develop a broader appeal and perhaps even shape the future. Among American composers of the 20th century, it’s hard to think of any other name associated with creating music of such wide-ranging and long-lasting mastery than that of Gershwin.
Of course, everyone immediately thinks of George Gershwin. But it was his older brother, Ira, who put words to those wonderful melodies by George. And though he was quick to call George the more “original” brother, without Ira’s poetic sensibility and feel for the language of everyday life, those songs just wouldn’t be quite so memorable.
Portland Stage has opened “Words By: Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook,” a play with music, as Director David Ellenstein prefers to call it, by Joseph Vass that pays homage to “the other Gershwin” and his contribution to so much music, with and without brother George.
After you’ve experienced the big spirit behind this fun little play, you may even begin to think you’ve got rhythm. And, as the song goes, “who could ask for anything more?”
The play employs just three performers plus a four-piece onstage band.
Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, as Ira Gershwin, reprises the role he premiered in California (also under the direction of Ellenstein) a couple of years ago. With a gentle smile and a hint of a Brooklyn Jewish accent, he draws the audience into the world of New York City and, later, Hollywood in the first half of the last century. Through anecdotes and with family album-style photos projected above him, we hear about the beginnings of American musical theater and how he and his brother and a few soon-to-be-famous friends worked at their art, trying to combine “thought with feeling” in a way that the masses could appreciate.
As reviewed at Friday’s opening, Mongiardo-Cooper also sang well, again with a sort of modest underplayed style that blossomed most fully on a soft “Shall We Dance” and a stirring “Love is Here to Stay” near the close.
Amy Bodnar and Robert Yacko handle the majority of the vocals. Bodnar brought a playful, bubbly stage presence to several songs in duet with Yacko, such as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” and scored some serious points with a take on “I Loves You Porgy.” Yacko added soul to “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and showed comic flare during “Union Square.”
Musical Director Hans Indigo Spencer plays piano and sax in the jazz-friendly band that includes locally connected musicians Pat Keane (guitar), Jim Lyden (bass) and Jacob Forbes (drums).
The set design by Anita Stewart employs a mosaic motif in keeping with Ira Gershwin’s description of his approach to writing.
With the help of shows like this, the Gershwins can still work musical magic after all these years.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.