So it was with a mix of curiosity and excitement that I attended the opening of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer recently. It’s the final show offered in the current season of Toronto’s Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, whose last work, Talk, I was pretty nuts about. The Soul of Gershwin was created and written by Joseph Vass, and it deftly draws connections between the musical artforms that so informed and shaped the work of the inimitable George Gershwin. Using a live band, Klezmerica -a super-talented music ensemble that has performed all across the US and at the International Klezmer Festival in Israel -along with three vocalists (Bruce A. Henry, Prudence Johnson and Robert Marinoff) and a narrator standing in as Gershwin himself (Michael Paul Levin), the show is a celebration of music, culture, history, and heritage -between and around and through several, in fact.
Musical combinations are sometimes magical and sometimes unusual, with surprising, delightful results. The duet between Henry and Marinoff, particularly, as the two engage in a kind of sonic duel between the plaintive intonations of a Cantor and the peppy joy of gospel is particularly beguiling; the duel soon gives way to a smooth synthesis, as the the intimate sonic connection between the two is rendered undeniable. Shalom and Hallelujah become joined in one joyous sound unto every Lord. Magnificent.
Another memorable moment occurs with the sung introductions to common Jewish traditions, followed by a winkingly sly “It Ain’t Necessarily So” -a song that was considered scandalous in its day for its flagrantly non-biblical approach. The “shock” we realize, must’ve been every bit as pungent in the Jewish community as the Christian, what with the convenient lifting of a religious melody to underscore a fundamentally naughty, amazingly tuneful song that hasn’t aged a day since its debut in Porgy and Bess in 1935. Johnson gives a playful, slinky interpretation that shows off the song’s timeless appeal while underlining the sly, naughty lyrics that so shocked (and delighted) audiences at its premiere.
It’s these kinds of connections -between past and present, between cultures, genders and traditions -that The Soul of Gershwin does so well: show (or rather, play) the history, and then show how Gershwin played with it to create something that was entirely new in its day, and still retains the gorgeous, rich sheen of genius crafted so carefully and lovingly by a man who understood how America is, at its very best, a crossroads of history, peoples, experiences, and an ‘otherness’ creating a unified whole. His music, even -or especially -now reflects this.
Now there were whisperings at the show’s opening that the Gershwin pieces were few & far between. But those with complaints need to read the full title of the show: the musical journey of an American klezmer. It’s not meant to be a turnstyle of Gershwin’s Greatest Hits. “Klezmer” (in this sense) means a lowly-paid musician who plays parties. Vass & Co. clearly feel Gershwin was a kind of modern klezmer made good, and it shows. The production is par history lesson, part remembrance, entirely celebration. If you don’t know much about Jewish music or culture, don’t worry: cultural traditions and words are clearly explained, and Klezmerica, as a band, are completely mesmerizing. Levin’s narration occasionally becomes slightly overbearing, if only because the power of Gershwin’s music is such that it really doesn’t need the kind of detailed introduction Voss has written, but then again, if you’re not sure about the history, and enjoy context, the interjections might be for you. Overall, you’ll come away from The Soul of Gershwin rich in knowledge, and in spirit. Shalom, Mr. Gershwin, and thank you, HGJTC. Can’t wait for next season.