CLEVELAND — It’s hard to write an autobiography about someone who is hard to figure out in the first place.
The late composer George Gershwin was such a person.
There’s a polarization of opinion about the man, which playwright/actor Hershey Felder found surprising while researching “George Gershwin Alone.” Felder’s one-person play is on-stage through Feb. 3 at the Cleveland Play House.
Gershwin’s best friend, composer Kay Swift, once told Felder that to understand Gershwin, “one simply had to understand his music.”
The composer’s music is the focus of “George Gershwin Alone.” This is a funny, vivid portrait of a man so in love with his tunes, and so genuinely eager to tell us about them, our eyes remain trained on the stage for the musical’s roughly two hours.
That is due not only to Felder’s writing, but his expert portrayal of Gershwin, who wrote the music for such shows as “Lady, be Good,” “Oh, Kay,” “Strike up the Band,” and “Porgy and Bess.”
While Gershwin’s music and “life-long love affair with the critics” takes up a large portion of the play, Felder humanizes him by touching on Gershwin’s close relationship with his family.
Gershwin senior would ask his son to play “Rhapsody in Blue” for him (“Rhapsody for Jews,” the older man called it) and junior would comply. We’re also told the composer used some of his earnings to buy a home for his family, including brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics to many of their songs.
Felder has played the role across the world in countless performances, but his performance in Cleveland feels fresh and invigorating as ever. The master performer knows just how to alter the pitch of his voice, speed up or slow down to express sorrow, engage an audience or achieve a comic effect.
There are plenty of opportunities in this show for Felder to showcase his comedic skills. We learn Gershwin was nicknamed “Cheesecake” because his father’s many different jobs included working in a bakery. The elder Gershwin, who like many immigrants came to the U.S. in search of the American dream, also ran a Turkish bath at one point.
“I won’t even tell you that nickname,” quips Felder as Gershwin, dryly delivering the line that adds to its humor.
Felder is dead-on in his using an accent that combines Russian and Yiddish flavors. (Gershwin’s parents were Jewish and Russian immigrants.) You can’t help but laugh when Gershwin imitates his parents.
“George why can’t you get good reviews?,” Felder says, his voice rising in pitch with each word. “Like Irving Berlin? He makes his mother proud!”
Felder never portrays Gershwin as a saint; we learn the good and the not so good aspects of the composer’s life.
As a child, we learn Gershwin was a troublemaker who hung out with his “hoodlum” friends. He didn’t become interested in music until he heard a boy playing violin in school and receive a round of applause. Gershwin, motivated perhaps by jealousy, had to play music as well. So, he asked someone where the boy lived, went there and insisted he teach him.
Despite discouragement from the boy, Gershwin forged ahead, and got his first music-related job at 15. From there, he launched a career that brought him in contact with such notables as singer Al Jolson, star of the movie “The Jazz Singer.”
It was fitting the two would work together; music lovers would come to know Gershwin as the man who “made a lady out of jazz.”
Gershwin died in 1937 at age 38 of a brain tumor and never knew how famous and beloved he’d become.
In the play, Gershwin tells us he once asked author and songwriter Newman Levy someone if his tunes would survive 100 years after him.
“Yes, if you’re around to play it,” came the reply.
Plays like “George Gershwin Alone” just prove how wrong Levy was. It takes place through Feb. 3 at Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., with performances set for 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday and 1:30 p.m. Jan. 31. Single ticket prices start at $39. Call (216)795-7000, ext. 4 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com.