After six years of wowing audiences from Broadway to London’s West End and most points in between, Hershey Felder is giving his final performances as “George Gershwin Alone” here in Chicago. The playwright and performer is preparing his next show on Chopin and his hair is already getting a bit long for the always dapper Gershwin. Felder’s embodiment of everything that is Gershwin, however, is nothing short of magic. For any of us who might have fantasized about spending an afternoon with that most unique of American composers who transcended any one genre by transforming them all, Felder makes that wish seem so real that the result might be a tad eerie if Felder’s Gershwin didn’t make us feel so much at home. The “one-man” (or woman) show format is an all-too familiar one and many are those who can convincingly tell anecdotes and even act out a scene or two from the life of another performer. What makes Felder’s portrayal so unique is that he not only tells Gershwin stories and relates his disappointments and triumphs with joy and pathos, but in relating how he composed “Swanee,” for instance, he can not only sing in much the manner that Gershwin would have, but has mastered his very complex and syncopated piano stylings as well. Had Felder been able to tell Gershwin stories the entire show or play Gershwin standards all evening, this show would be an effective and status quo one-man show. But Felder’s ability to do both of those things so extraordinarily—and often simultaneously—takes the experience to an entirely other level. You realize when Felder is performing the entire “Rhapsody in Blue” in a tricky reduction of both piano and orchestra parts that you are hard-pressed to think of current pianists who could toss off this virtuosic music with such playfulness and heart. Whatever you do, don’t miss the post-curtain “sing along” and request section where you can have your favorite Gershwin hits played on the spot and sung by the entire audience being lovingly spoon-fed the lyrics just the way George himself would do it at society parties. (Dennis Polkow)
“George Gershwin Alone” plays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted, (312)988-9000, through July 31.