Step Brothers

With this review, I join the cacophony of critics and flacks heralding the latest tribute to George and Ira Gershwin. The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm, a new musical revue that's parked briefly at the Herberger Theater Center on its way to Broadway, is the most impressive, most opulent staging of Gershwin music--or any popular American music--to grace the stage in several years.

Arizona Theater Company's production could not be a more celebratory expression of the songwriting skills of George and Ira Gershwin; the moment the overture begins, you know that the creators of this show--among them former ATC artistic director Mark Lamos--are full of thrilling new ideas for this batch of unbeatable standards.

If it's tough to fault the entertainment value of this show, it's pretty easy to find its single flaw: For all its oomph, Fascinating Rhythm doesn't honor George Gershwin's talents as a serious composer. The production's slick stylings showcase the man's perfect pop sensibilities. But Gershwin, who died in 1937, worked in both popular and classical music, and to focus on one is to ignore the other. There's not so much as an instrumental interlude here that acknowledges "Rhapsody in Blue," the first such composition to use jazz-derived melody patterns, and a piece that prompted music writer Steve Schwartz to hail Gershwin as "the American equivalent of Verdi."

Because Fascinating Rhythm sets about proving the timelessness of the Gershwins' music without a lot of riffing on George's classical influences, it's more an homage to Ira than George: If the brothers' music is classic, it's in large part because of Ira's traditional phrasings. There's almost nothing in his lyrics that reflect the era they were written in, nothing so sappy or moon-in-June about them that they can't be contemporized.

And so, every couple of years, we're treated to another red-hot-and-Gershwin revue or CD compilation, each designed to prove the shelf life of George and Ira.

In the case of Fascinating Rhythm, this alleged updating isn't about the songs so much as their staging. With the exception of a vaguely disco-fied take on "Embraceable You," Mel Marvin's musical arrangements are pretty traditional. But Lamos and choreographer David Marques have modernized our favorite Gershwin standards by naughtying them up with sex (I began, after about the fourth number, to think of this show as The Battle of the Biceps, as each male singer appeared onstage in a tee shirt tighter than the last one he'd worn) and flashy jazz-rock steps. The result is a gorgeous hybrid of Bob Fosse (lots of knees-in, fingers-out dancing here) and MTV-age rock videos, with nods to hip-hop and street dance (find me a new musical that doesn't include a reference to Stomp--please!).

Lamos and Marques are determined to make us hear these songs as if for the first time: "Isn't It a Pity" is a frisky lesbian love duet, and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is a tribute, sung by the red-ribbon-bedecked company, to those who've died of AIDS. Marvin has a few innovative tricks up his sleeve as well. Among his finer moments is a pairing of "The Man I Love" with the lesser-known "Soon." And I can't imagine even hard-core Gershwin fanatics objecting to Marvin's wonderful choral arrangement of the usually torchy "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Nor can I fathom "Just Another Rumba" as anything other than the hilarious cartoon it is here (patient confesses to doctor that she can't stop dancing; the two finish in a frenzy together), mostly because I've never seen it performed before. There are several songs here like that; Lamos and Marvin have yanked a handful of Gershwin goodies like "Cousin in Milwaukee" out of mothballs and thrown them into the musical mix. (I attended opening night with a lifelong Gershwin buff who hadn't heard a couple of these songs since their original recordings.)

The exceptional cast is occasionally upstaged by Michael Yeargan's amazingly mobile set, expertly lighted by Peggy Eisenhauer (she won a Tony for her work on Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk), who splashes the stage with an MGM-worthy palette of terrific Technicolor.

Despite the impressive display, watching Fascinating Rhythm made me feel like I did the first time I heard a disco version of Ravel's "Bolero": baffled, and more than a little patronized. To accept an updated Gershwin, one has to acknowledge that someone thinks the Gershwins need updating, or at least that we won't listen to their music if it isn't somehow contemporized. ATC's Michael Rennie confided--both in the press materials he issued on the show and in a phone conversation with me--that "this is not your grandfather's Gershwin!" But he's mistaken. Stripped of its preening, half-naked poses and fantastic, computer-driven set pieces, this is still the same pile of perfect pop songs, all of them worthy of another listen.

As much as I enjoyed myself--and as convinced as I am that I've seen the definitive Gershwin revue--I left the theater wondering what exactly was wrong with my grandfather's Gershwin.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm continues through Sunday, January 17, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela