Hershey Felder has created something of a congenial, if confounding, theatrical chimera in "George Gershwin Alone," now on Berkeley Repertory Theatre's thrust stage.
Some will see it as a biographical play with music. Lots of music. For others, it will resonate as an elaborate cabaret act, or possibly a music history class taught by a very knowledgeable if inevitably pedantic instructor.
The one-man show's spare, elegant set by Yael Pardess suggests formality with its imposing, centrally placed Steinway grand, but also intimacy among the desk stacked full with notebooks and scattered papers, and even a touch of whimsy as sheet music and the carpet seem to fly off the stage in anticipation of a magic ride.
Speaking in the first person as Gershwin, Felder bears a slight facial resemblance to the composer, but his unkempt hair and modern suit are in conflict with the perpetually dapper Gershwin's period image, thus deflecting any greater verisimilitude.
It's no spoiler to reveal that Felder covers Gershwin's life from a child of Russian-Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side to his untimely death at 38 as a world-famous, if not renowned, stage and screen composer in Hollywood.
The renown, or lack thereof, seems to be a sticking point for Gershwin, as presented though Felder's filter.
He quotes several dismissive contemporary reviews of "Porgy and Bess" and then ruminates on them, though it is not clear if the comments are actual quotes from the composer or Felder's creation.
As a performer, Felder is a reasonable singer within his range, a passable actor and a skilled pianist. He possesses a dour charm and radiates musical scholarship, spending time — perhaps too much — extensively analyzing the structural complexities of well-known songs like "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
This and other technical cul de sacs may be of great interest to the Gershwin aficionado, but add little to the dramatic arc of the evening, which really only peaks in a brief section about Gershwin's relationship with composer Kay Swift, and when the character describes his own death.
Felder follows that strong moment with an impeccable, ravishing, complete performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" that climaxes in a blackout. It's a smart, theatrical closing which is then utterly unraveled when he returns to the stage for a singalong encore of audience requests.
Credited with writing "the book" for the production, Felder seems to see it as more musical than play. Ultimately, as presented, with direction by Joel Zwick, it is neither. It is, however, an evening for Gershwin fans to get together, reminisce about their favorite subject and even sing a song or two. That will please many people.