Does popular music of eighty years ago have any relevance in today’s society? The 21st Century obsession with superficial instant gratification has evoked a very different type of popular music from that of songs written in the 1920’s and 30’s.
However, many old tunes and lyrics have stood the difficult test of time. Like anything that is touched by creative genius, the undeniable quality of a ‘classic’ lives forever – and George Gershwin certainly penned a few major classics in his time!
During his brief 39 years of life, Gershwin wrote over 550 songs – including full-scale musical scores for a number of Broadway shows – as well as some notable piano pieces that aspired to a slightly more classical music genre. Orchestral performances of Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris remain instrumental repertoire favourites to this day, and interpretive renditions of songs such as Summertime, I Got Rhythm and Embraceable You have become standards for international recording artists.
In one of the bits of linking dialogue, the opening night audience of By George! The Glory of Gershwin (currently running at Cape Town’s popular On Broadway cabaret venue) was informed that at the debut performance of Rhapsody in Blue, a rather nervous Mr.Gershwin somehow lost concentration and he forgot to play about 11 pages of the original score. Apparently that audience to his impressive Rhapsody debut nevertheless rewarded the pianist with a rapturous standing ovation!
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the audience response to the overall presentation of By George! Now although I’ve grown accustomed to the habitual lack-lustre lethargy of local audiences, on this occasion I often felt there was good reason for the dearth of energised enthusiasm.
To be fair, though, there were occasional bursts of appreciative applause for certain recognisable numbers, including Albert Combrinck’s dubiously flamboyant rendition of the earlier-mentioned Rhapsody. And although the programme provides a pleasant evening’s entertainment, some glaring production flaws hamper its fullest potential; a tribute to such a great composer deserves presentational polish if nothing else.
My first gripe is purely technical; the lights were generally too bright and the sound was far too loud. I know that simple yet evocative lighting effects are possible within the given limitations of this venue and I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing far subtler sound amplification there.
Although I wholeheartedly welcomed the presence of a ‘live’ pianist onstage, as opposed to the usual backing-track accompaniments, the heavy hammering upon that beautiful keyboard dominated the whole evening. As a result, the singers seemed to be competing with the piano volume, which naturally denied them the light-and-shade subtleties essential to Gershwin’s more sensitive compositions.
Most of the attempts to provide a contemporary feel to this old material worked successfully, except for one noticeable error of judgment; Caely-Jo Levy’s rendition of Summertime was diabolical in my estimation and should be re-worked immediately. This young artist has a good voice as well as an appealing stage persona and her performance especially blossomed in characterised portrayals of Naughty Baby (from Girl Crazy) and Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (from Shall We Dance?)
Jaco Norval is blessed with a lyrical voice as well as impressive physical height, both of which would positively benefit him if he employed more stillness on stage. His interpretations of Soon (from Strike Up The Band) and Nice Work (from Girl Crazy) worked well.
Keeno-Lee Hector has a serious and fairly stiff stage presence that was fortunately alleviated by moments of unexpected animation. He certainly matched Miss Levy’s theatricality in Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off and his semi-operatic vocal talents were given good exposure in There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon (from Porgy & Bess)
The undeniable star of this show is Danelle De Vries – an upcoming songstress of note. She admirably uses the full range of her innate musicality in fresh interpretations of memorable Gershwin melodies and her intuitive understanding of the contained messages within each song is crystal clear.
She employs a delightful sense of humour in numbers such as By Strauss (from The Show Is On) and It Ain’t Necessarily So (from Porgy & Bess) and yet possesses a persona of sophisticated elegance that lends this production some of the essential style that is often lacking. Miss De Vries’s poignant rendition of But Not For Me (from Girl Crazy) was the memorable highlight of the evening.
If you’re seeking a few hours of musical nostalgia, I heartily recommend By George! The Glory of Gershwin – if nothing else, you’ll witness the birth of a new rising star.
By George! The Glory of Gershwin is on at Cape Town’s On Broadway until April 5. To book phone 021 424 1194 or go to www.onbroadway.co.za.