Our Gershwins are here to stay

Madelyn Adams (left) and Catie Marrion dance to songs by Ira and George Gershwin in "S Wonderful."Photo courtesy of Christopher Briscoe

"'SWonderful" is like a sumptuous banquet. It titillates the senses, it's all good, and there's almost too much of it. Ray Roderick's spirited celebration of the songbook of George and Ira Gerswhin, now playing at Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, serves up 42 tunes by those nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn whose musical output may never be surpassed. OCT's Jim Giancarlo directs.

The show is a musical hybrid, neither Broadway-type musical theater nor a straight revue. Rather, Roderick has spread the songs' riches among five different stories, each of which stands on its own. The vignettes span the first half of the 20th century, then leap in the end to the here and now.

The funniest of these — although the show is not designed to be a laugh riot — is the first one, which is set in New York City in 1928 and titled "Nice Work" after the Gershwins' "Nice Work if You Can Get It." Our hero is a young man named Harold (Galen Schloming) who works at a New York newspaper and wants to be the paper's next star reporter, investigating and busting crooks.

The skit finds Harold as a typesetter and a couple of '20s career gals (typists?) doing a tap dance routine while seated in spinning chairs to "I Got Rhythm." Harold is on the trail of a beautiful crook known as the "chic thief," a quest that sparks romance ("I've Got a Crush on You") and a clever dance sequence performed in handcuffs.

The show is a perfect fit for OCT, with five singer-dancer-actors and a grand piano on a set done up as a proscenium-stage from the Vaudeville era. The piano, the only instrument here, is played with verve throughout by the redoubtable John Taylor, who never misses a beat (yes, the John Taylor who founded the Children's and Teen Musical Theaters of Oregon).

The evening begins with Taylor belting out passages from "Rhapsody in Blue," which is perfect for the first story, since the piece pulses with the rhythms and colors of New York (as Woody Allen recognized in "Manhattan"). After a quick ensemble performance of the title tune, we're in 1928 New York City, complete with projections (skyscrapers, crowds, 1920s cars) on a large screen at the rear of the set.

If the songs fit the mini-plot of New York in the '20s rather neatly, Roderick had to work to try to fit them in with the 1930s segment, which is set in New Orleans and titled "Of Thee I Sing." A character called Nina (Britney Simpson), who wears a flower in her hair a la Billie Holliday on an old album cover, kicks it off with a sweet, soulful take on "The Man I Love."

But how do you string together a story around "By Strauss" (Vienna), "A Foggy Day" (London) and "Just Another Rhumba" (Havana)? Easy: postcards!

You have Harold and Jane (Madelyn Adams) run off on Nina, who begins getting postcards from all over the world. That's a stretch. But the segment ends on a high note with Nina and Jane singing gorgeous harmonies on "It Ain't Necessarily So." "An American in Paris," set in France on the eve of World War II, finds Gene (Mikey Perdue) as an American sailor who meets a French girl (Leslie, played by Catie Marron), tours the city with her and falls in love to the likes of "Fascinating Rhythm," "Our Love is Here to Stay" and of course "An American in Paris." Giancarlo has rounded up an impressive crew of young, professional singer-dancers, all of whom are college-trained performers and several of whom are working here for the first time. There's a lot of great dancing (Giancarlo choreographed in addition to directing) as well as singing, and I would be hard put to pick a favorite.

Kerri Lea Robbins' extensive stable of costumes ranges from the elegant (Nina as a slinky torch singer) to the campy (the beach outfits for the Havana number) to the hilariously neo-rococo (dresses and wigs for a wedding scene).

Even though watching a gang of attractive, talented, young performers doing some of the greatest popular songs ever written is not a bad thing (nice work if you can get it), I'll admit to a moment of despair upon seeing that the show would run 42 songs. But many of the numbers are short, and every time one seemed to lag a bit it was followed by one that just knocked the lights out. In the end, the show ran just two hours. It seemed shorter.

" 'S Wonderful" plays at OCT through Nov. 3.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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