Ordway, Park Square show Cinderella, Soul of Gershwin

Going for the musical thrill: T. Mychael Rambo and Klezmerica
Petronella Ytsma

How long does it take for The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer to capture the audience? A handful of seconds—just enough time for the famed opening clarinet notes from Rhapsody in Blue to be played by Dale Mendenhall. From there, Joseph Vass's creation is a joyful ride into the roots and eventual results of one of America's great composers.

Those roots are certainly tangled, from the music of Gershwin's Jewish heritage (inside the synagogue and outside from the street musicians, the klezmer, he heard around him) to the sounds he heard on the streets of New York, especially gospel and the beginnings of jazz. Vass makes a convincing case that these influences were at least as strong, if not stronger, than the classical artists often cited in connection with Gershwin. Like so many great creators, Gershwin bent the forms, such as the concerto or opera, to his own interests.

The story, told by the man himself (played by Michael Paul Levin), often feels as if we are just moving from musical beat to musical beat. The project started years ago as a lecture and concert, and that DNA still seems embedded in the piece. Levin gives a fine performance, but the nature of the story keeps him from being anything but an information-delivery machine.

However, once we get inside the show's musical moments, any questions fade away. The vocals are provided by T. Mychael Rambo, Maggie Burton, and Prudence Johnson, who embody different sides of the composer's styles. Sometimes though, in keeping with the musical stew that Gershwin drew from, their roles shift and combine. The Act One-closing "I Got Rhythm" brings this out fully, as do the selections from Porgy and Bess.

There are some terrific vocal moments, especially during the Porgy and Bess sections, that showcase the mixed influences—noting, for example, how Gershwin cleverly undercuts the anti-Bible arguments of "It Ain't Necessarily So" by basing the melody on two pieces of music heard every week in a synagogue.

The singers are backed by the six-piece Klezmerica, led by creator Vass on piano and performing with heady gusto throughout. Special mention goes to drummer Jay Epstein, who provided not just the musical backbone but lots of muscular soul, and to violinist Gary Schulte, whose playing threatened to raise the roof right off Park Square.

That musical thrill, from the compositions of Gershwin, his contemporaries and influences, and even modern-day followers (we hear Vass's interpretation of lost musical sketches that Gershwin worked on, for example), is what drives The Soul of Gershwin and gives it a big, beating heart. There's nothing particularly "holiday" about the production, but you'll leave the theater in a state of pure joy.

MOMENTS BEFORE the curtain Friday evening for Cinderella, one member of a group of young girls running up the stairs to their seats lost one of her shoes, mysteriously princess-like. It turned out to be the biggest moment of drama of the entire evening at the premiere of the Ordway's production of Rogers and Hammerstein's version of the classic fairy tale.

Oh sure, there's some romance between Cinderella and her Prince (solidly played, but without all that much spark, by Jessica Fredrickson and Jeremiah James) and a few laughs and visual thrills along the way, but the whole thing feels more like a chore than a jolly night at the theater. Some of that comes from the material itself. In the decades since it was originally broadcast for television, the piece has been stretched out, adding songs from other places in the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook and tossing in plot complications that do little more than stretch the action to the breaking point.

It doesn't help that the usually reliable Greta Grosch completely misfires as Cinderella's nasty stepmother, giving a performance that never shifts out of first gear. That seems to have affected the two stepsisters as well, who have a hard time mustering laughs out of their constant mugging. So the romance is pleasant, but the humor never gets going. That leaves us with only some nice moments (the transformation of the pumpkin and the animals into Cinderella's carriage is accomplished with a lot of style) and good performances in supporting roles, especially old pros Wendy Lehr and Gary Briggle as the still-in-love Queen and King.

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