'Soul of Gershwin' has plenty of that

​There's nothing holiday related -- Jew, Gentile, or otherwise -- about The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer. This deep into our season of forced mirth and happiness, that's something of a relief. It also does not mean the whole thing isn't pure joy to watch. Fueled by Gershwin's impressive catalog and brought to life by a trio of talented singers and a hot six-piece band, The Soul of Gershwin makes for terrific musical entertainment.

Instead of delving deeply into Gershwin's life story -- don't expect any tales of love; and that he died before his 40th birthday is only alluded to -- Joseph Vass's piece spends its time on the music. Specifically, this is an examination of Gershwin's musical roots. 
Those roots are certainly tangled enough, from Gershwin's own Jewish heritage to the sounds he heard on the streets of New York, especially gospel and the nascent sounds 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 to Gershwin. Like so many great creators, Gershwin bent the forms -- such as the concerto or opera -- to his own interests instead of the other way around.

The story, told by the man himself (played by Michael Paul Levin), often feels like we are just moving from musical beat to musical beat. However, once we get inside those 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 interests. Though, in keeping with the musical stew that Gershwin drew from, sometimes their roles shift and combine. The act-one closing "I Got Rhythm" brought this out fully, as did the selections from Porgy and Bess.

They 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 violinist Gary Schulte, whose playing threatened to raise the roof right off Park Square.

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer
Through January 1, 2012
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
For info, call 651.291.7005 or visit online

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