I’ve been crazy about the songs of George and Ira Gershwin ever since I got my hands on a CD that featured the likes of Elvis Costello, Carly Simon, Elton John, and even Meatloaf singing many of the sibling duo’s most popular tunes. It was kind of a backdoor approach to familiarizing myself with the genre, but whatever works, I guess. The performances on that CD are magical.
So I couldn’t wait to see the new Gershwin musical revue ‘S Wonderful at Musical Theatre West.
The show, conceived and written by Ray Roderick with musical arrangements by Rick Hip-Flores, takes shape in the form of five vignettes whose thin story lines tell tales of love. Five enormously gifted and versatile singer/dancers bring the musical numbers to life. Some of the songs are sung in their entirety, some cut short as necessitated by plot progression. Still others find expression through medleys of several songs.
It all works, albeit some parts far more spectacularly than others.
In spite of beginning with the famous sliding clarinet glissando comprising the intro to “Rhapsody in Blue,” ‘S Wonderful gets off to a lackluster start, the first two vignettes competently sung but missing something in the choreography and musical interpretation. The audience seemed more than willing to respond enthusiastically but held back, apparently hoping for more and better. That was certainly my hesitation.
But when the second vignette wrapped up with rousing renditions of “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the production thankfully began to take it up a notch. As far as I was concerned, from that point on the show heated up and never again lost steam.
Highlights suddenly began to populate the evening. Inspired numbers were many and included “Somebody Loves Me,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” a montage from “An American in Paris,” “Funny Face,” “Swanee,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Shall We Dance,” “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.”
Various match-ups of cast members depicted stories of love gained or lost, fantasies of love, and a love triangle. Some were heartwarming, others sad, still others sweet and innocent. And somehow, the cast’s expressions and mannerisms often evoked the past– perhaps the era in which the Gershwins enjoyed their heyday.
The fabulous cast includes Rebecca Johnson, Damon Kirsche, Ashley Fox Linton, Jeff Skowron and Rebecca Spencer. Musical director Bret Simmons leads a top-notch, seven-member combo, visible at the rear of the stage, that features piano, trombone, trumpet, acoustic base, violin, drums and the aforementioned clarinet, with the woodwind musician alternating to flute and sax, as well.
Curiously, two additional unidentified cast members were a pair of beautiful dancers, who appeared in the background a handful of times for mere seconds, representing a missed opportunity of mammoth proportion. I wondered more than once why they weren’t featured much more prominently, which would have greatly enhanced the production.
Musical Theatre West’s ‘S Wonderful continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, through April 20. Performances are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased through the MTW Box Office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or musical.org .