In Series’ Gershwin revue: The perfect musical Christmas Gift

Revival of the late Fred Lee’s “By George, By Ira, By Gershwin” revue brings back the Golden Era of the American Songbook at Source. Great songs and great singers, so what's not to like?

Cast of the In Series' Gershwin revue at Source. (Credit: Johannes Markus)

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2015 – Call us unfairly biased, but in our musical book, the brother team of George and Ira Gershwin lies at the heart and soul of that ever-evolving American Songbook.

If you doubt our word, consider purchasing tickets to the In Series’ latest production, a musical revue entitled “By George, By Ira, By Gershwin.” Currently being staged at DC’s Source theater space through Dec. 20, 2015, tickets to this one could be one of 2015’s best Christmas presents ever.

The In Series talented cast for this holiday treat includes Detra Battle, Kenneth Derby, Laura Wehrmeyer-Fuentes, Bryan Jackson, Jase Parker and Pam Ward, all of whom take on various personae in their close encounters with the Gershwins’ irresistible musical smorgasbord.

Jase Parker and Pam Ward selling a great song in the in Series' Gershwin revue. (Credit: Johannes Markus)
Jase Parker and Pam Ward selling a great song in the in Series’ Gershwin revue. (Credit: Johannes Markus)

“By George” was last mounted by this company some 20 years ago, when the In Series was still performing on the Foxhall Road campus of the former Mt. Vernon College for Women (now part of George Washington University). The show was put together for the series by longtime DC music and theater guru and Duke Ellington School for the Arts Drama and Arts Chair, the late Fredric Lee.

Lee’s revue avoids artificial plot constructs and largely lets the Gershwin’s wonderful music do most of the talking, with cast members occasionally providing useful bits of historical data along the way.

Helpfully, Lee’s time-travel tour through the 1920s and 1930s breaks the Gershwins’ relatively short but still magnificent dual career into three identifiable but overlapping periods: “Tin Pan Alley & Broadway” (Act I), and “Porgy and Bess” and “Hollywood” (Act II). Lee’s focus on this trio of genres highlights the Gershwin brothers’ amazing skill as perhaps America’s first “crossover” artists ever.

George and Ira began to team in the late 19-teens, struggling through the ritual early failures before catching on in live theater. Not content to rest on his pop tune and Broadway laurels, however, George worked diligently to be taken more seriously as a composer, astounding the musical world with his successful and brilliantly innovative “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), “Piano Concerto in F” (1925), “An American in Paris,” (1928) and his “Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra” (1931).

Detra Battle and Bryan Jackson in In Series' all-Gershwin revue at Source. (Credit: Johannes Markus)
Detra Battle and Bryan Jackson in In Series’ all-Gershwin revue at Source. (Credit: Johannes Markus)

He also created his only major opera, “Porgy and Bess” (1935) which, to his dismay, was regarded as a flop, mainly because critics and audiences were unable to figure out just where in the strongly demarcated musical firmament if would fit. Ironically, today most American opera companies have fully adopted “Porgy” as a staple in their repertoire. Along with Puccini’s “La Bohème,” it’s a perennial audience favorite and a critical moneymaker as well—a long way from its disappointingly confused 1935 reception.

For his part, Ira, “the quiet brother,” contributed an equally but sometimes unrecognized skillset to the musical partnership. The current intimate production at the Source has the distinct advantage of being “up close and personal” to the performers, in a way that enables every member of the audience to hear quite distinctly Ira’s clever, witty and highly inventive lyrics.

Ira’s clearly popular but also quite literary lyrics contribute immeasurably to George’s catchy and inventive tunes by adding a distinctive personality and spin to each song in a way that makes most of them memorable.

All the singers performed superbly during Sunday’s opening night performance at Source. Jase Parker was physically elastic and funny in addition to his great skill in belting out the Gershwins’ winning and popular songs.

The huge, impressive and authoritative voices of Bryan Jackson and Pam Ward added immeasurably to the revue’s “Porgy and Bess” segment, giving the audience a real sense of this music’s genuinely operatic power, while Detra Battle was moving in the opera’s more lyrical moments.

Along with the rest of the cast, Kenneth Derby and Laura Wehrmeyer-Fuentes contributed vocal wit and insight to many of the Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley and Broadway song classics.

Kenneth Derby joins Laura Wehrmeyer Fuentes for another musical moment in the In Series Gershwin revue. (Credit: Johannes Markus)
Kenneth Derby joins Laura Wehrmeyer Fuentes for another musical moment in the In Series Gershwin revue. (Credit: Johannes Markus)

Choreography for the show by Angelisa Gillyard was light and efficient, making the dance style numbers feel surprisingly easy and even sweeping, given the small size of Source’s performance space.

Greg Stevens’ silvery, glittery set and Stefan Johnson’s lighting design created a surprisingly early vaudeville backdrop to the production, and stage director Abel Lopez’ understated positioning and blocking served to highlight the right characters for each song while making entrances and exits natural and unobtrusive.

The ensemble was ably accompanied by music director and pianist Reenie Codelka along with veteran double bassist Ephriam Wolfolk. Both kept the rhythm and pace going throughout, although at times—perhaps due to the slightly dim lighting at the piano—Ms. Codelka’s accompaniment seemed to wander a bit.

The In Series’ “By George, By Ira, By Gershwin” is an absolutely enthralling look back when the American Songbook conquered the world with its catchy, funny and blessedly optimistic words, tunes and jazzy inflections. The company has scheduled an unusually high number of performances between now and Dec. 20, so we’d advise taking advantage of this opportunity to brighten your holidays by attending this delightful musical treat.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

Attending the show: The In Series’ “By George, By Ira, By Gershwin” is now being performed at Source, 1835 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC through Dec. 20.

For tickets and information, call 202-204-7763 or visit InstantSeats. The InstantSeats link provides you with complete dates and showtimes.

Running Time: Performances run an hour and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

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