Weak book hurts Park Square's Words By... Ira Gershwin

T. Mychael Rambo, Jennifer Grimm, and Ari Hoptman
T. Mychael Rambo, Jennifer Grimm, and Ari Hoptman
Photo by Petronella Ytsma

Lighting doesn't strike twice at Park Square Theatre in the case of the Gershwin brothers.

In 2011, the theater had a hit with The Soul of Gershwin, a musical look at George's life and career. Creator Joseph Vass earned an Ivey for his music direction of a completely satisfying evening of performance.

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This year, Vass turns to the other Gershwin, Ira, for Words By... Ira Gershwin. Despite the efforts of an extremely talented trio of performers and a hot four-piece band, the new show just can't generate the heat of the original.

The problem isn't the music. I's hard to argue with songs by Kurt Weil, Vernon Duke, and, of course, George Gershwin. It's that Vass's book feels aimless, pulling out details and events from Ira Gershwin's life without much attempt to mold the material into a narrative. It's the sort of show where the intermission sort of arrives midway through, instead of being built up to over the course of the final numbers.

What keeps the mind from wandering, then, are the performances. Ari Hoptman fully inhabits the mild-mannered lyricist, and gives us some clues as to what made Ira Gershwin tick. By the end, Hoptman builds an intriguing character and gives plenty of hints to the complex and deep relationship the two brothers had for the decades they collaborated.

T. Mychael Rambo and Jennifer Grimm help to bring those lyrics to life, adding layers of emotion to the tunes, whether they are gentle love songs ("Long Ago and Far Away") or epic bits of humor ("Union Square"). 

Combine the singers with the band and you have an entertaining concert. It just doesn't cross the line into a full-fledged evening of theater.


Words By... Ira Gershwin
Through Dec. 29
Park Square Theatre
20 W. 7th St., St. Paul
For tickets and more information, 651.291.7005 or visit online

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