Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse offers respite from the hectic pace of the holiday season with a mellow tribute to the talents of George and Ira Gershwin.
The Gershwin brothers collaborated on an array of songs for Broadway and Hollywood, songs that have become part of the fabric of American music. “Fascinating Gershwin” is a revival of “ ’S Wonderful,” written and directed by Jim Buckley in 2005.
Viv Goff directs the same singers this time around, but Jim, now 99, is onstage discussing the history of the Gershwin brothers, both personal and musical. He also sings in some charming duets. Buckley’s role is double cast, with George Anderson in the slot on some nights. This is a continuation of the series of Pewter Plough tributes to American composers.
The cast gathers around the grand piano on the stage, presided over by piano man and singer David Manion, who is also music director. The premise is that they are in the club room of the Gershwin Chapter of the Great American Song Book Society rehearsing a show called “ ’S Wonderful.”
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As the narrator/historian talks about composer George and lyricist Ira, members of the cast sing appropriate songs by the duo. The songs are strung together with interesting and often humorous anecdotes, as the singers make remarks and joke with one another. The small theater is ideal for the informal, intimate style of the show.
The nature of each song is paired to the personality of the singer or singers. Sprightly Wayne Attoe is good with wordy lyrics like those in “Fascinating Rhythm” and with upbeat moods like “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Lady Be Good.” Laurelle Barnett is also lively, and with a strong voice and plenty of body language, including a bit of dancing, she brings songs with the energy of “Stairway to Paradise” to life. She also emotes well, as in “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Jim Conroy, a big man with a big voice, is a natural for belting out “Swanee” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” but he’s also smooth with ballads like “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Barnett and Conroy turn their voices up a notch or two for “I Love You Porgy,” reminding us why “Porgy and Bess” is considered an American opera. Viv Goff’s sweet soprano is just right for sentimental songs like “Summertime,” “The Man I Love” and “For You, For Me Forever More.”
Manion’s musicianship runs the gamut of the Gershwins’ versatility, and he has his own gravelly vocal style, singing “But Not for Me,” “I’m Bidin’ My Time” and “I’ve Got a Crush On You.” He closes the show on a dramatic note, playing George Gershwin’s powerful “Rhapsody in Blue.”
There are more than 40 songs or bits of songs in the show, some performed as medleys. The singers’ voices blend in harmonizing numbers, and some of the most lighthearted moments come in clever duets. The small cast seems to multiply when they all sing together as in “Love Is Sweeping the Country” and “Of Thee I Sing.”
People of a certain age, who are the ones who will most appreciate the show, will know the words to many of the songs, and it might be difficult to keep from softly singing along with some favorites — or at least tapping your feet.
Most of the familiar tunes were written with introductory lyrics that are seldom sung, so hearing them can be an educational experience. Less familiar songs are mentioned in the cast’s conversations and they sing some of them. It becomes apparent why some failed while others endured.
Some of the Gershwin brothers’ interesting history unfolds. For example, George began playing piano at age 12, re-creating a popular song by watching it playing on a player piano. He was amazingly prolific, especially when it’s realized that his work was packed into a short life. He died of a brain tumor at age 38, but he left a legacy of songs that have been enjoyed by several generations.
The final performance of “Fascinating Gershwin” will be presented on New Year’s Eve, followed by live cabaret music featuring singer Deanna Delore with Manion on piano and vocals, with a buffet and champagne.