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Friday, 08 May 2015 09:22

Words by Ira Gershwin @ Colony Theatre in Burbank

Written by Radomir Vojtech Luza - Theatre Critic
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If you are interested in classical American musical standards from the first half of the 20th century, run don’t walk to the Los Angeles Premiere of “Words by Ira Gershwin,” a musical play by Joseph Vass, extended through May 24th at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.

This journey through the heart, soul and mind of the other half of the Gershwin duo introduces us, the audience, to some of the greatest American standards ever written.

Songs such as “Fascinating Rhythm,” “S Wonderful,” “The Man That Got Away,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “Love Is Here To Stay” make up what can be considered, and in some circles is already thought of as, the most influential American song book of all time.

The lyrics and music, as sung by the three principal performers, and backed-up by a stellar quartet (Kevin Toney: Piano/Conductor, Terry Wollman: Electric and Acoustic Guitar, John B.Williams: Bass, Greg Webster: Drums) get you out of your seat like a firecracker on New Year’s Eve.

Vass and director David Ellenstein combine to bring us the insights of a lyrical genius, a man who dedicated his life to music and art, personal highs and lows be damned.

It is not enough to say that Ira Gershwin is the man behind the lyrics we love.

The truth that Vass and Ellenstein make you see is the blood, sweat and tears poured into this passion. They force you to take a good, hard look at a man who sacrificed his life so that the radio or record player could sound better.

A brilliant lyricist whose main pursuit was to “feel a thought,” while composing lyrics to music already written by his brother George and other composers of the time such as Kurt Weill and Jerome Kern, Ira Gershwin’s work in theatre, opera and film has stood the test of time. It stems from a need to not only entertain, but enlighten, illuminate and inspire that has happily bounced off ear drums and brain cells for nearly 100 years.

The music, directed by Toney and arranged by Vass, lays the groundwork for the play, not vice versa.

It circles and sashays the performers like a hell bent disco queen looking for revenge.

Toney and Vass see the music as a means to an end. They use it to awaken artistic and creative instincts in the character of Ira Gershwin, but hopefully in the audience as well.

It is not lost on them that without the Gershwin brothers American music as a whole might have been different, and future generations may view their times in a less musical or artistic manner.

After all, what the Gershwins did is made clear in this play. What is historically accurate to say today is that George Gershwin’s music and Ira Gershwin’s lyrics elevated the craft of song writing to a new level that may never be matched again.

Toney and Vass clearly capture this idea with the help of a talented cast.

Jake Broder (Ira Gershwin) gives a bravura performance as the lyrical half of the Gershwin duo. His character is the play’s lynchpin as he takes us on this journey through Ira Gershwin’s thoughts and emotions.

Angela Teek (Chanteuse) almost runs away with the play. The NAACP Award nominated actress sings her heart and soul out on every composition. Her voice is made of velvet and satin and offers an evening of vocal and lyrical machinations rarely seen or heard elsewhere.

But it is Elijah Rock (Crooner) who steals the show. With a voice resonant and loud enough for opera, this recurring guest star on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” has the stage presence and dancing ability to go as far as his talent will take him.

Here, especially in the songs from “Porgy and Bess,” the 2014 NAACP Theatre Award Winner displays a deep and natural understanding of and flair for the material.

This critic hopes to see Rock on the stages of Burbank or Los Angeles again soon.

Furthering the message of the play are the scenic design of David Potts, the lighting design of Jared A. Sayeg, the sound design of Drew Dalzell and the costume design of Dianne K. Graebner.

“Words by Ira Gershwin,” the last production of the Colony’s 40th anniversary season, is an open letter to the American public to avail themselves of and become more familiar with the lyrics of Ira Gershwin. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of art, politics, culture and love in the American home and on the mainstream American landscape.

Even though the play does not concentrate on the private life of Ira Gershwin, it helps us fall in love with George Gershwin and his lyrical Gershwin brother all over again.

The show focuses on how the words were constructed and sung. The points of view behind them, and how one man changed the lyrical playing field as we know it.

The musical numbers are also memorable and very catchy.

We are urged to remember to understand.

To forget to doubt.

And to embrace the path least taken.

What more can you ask from a piece of art?

What does it say about a theatre that is as good as it gets in the Los Angeles area and only getting better?

Only words will tell.

Show Times:

Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm
Sundays at 2pm

Tickets:
$20-$49 (group discounts are available)

Admission/Information:
(818) 558-7000

Question-and-answer talkback on May 7th.

Colony Theatre,
555 North Third Street, (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall,
Burbank, CA 91502

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