Charleston Stage put together a crowd-pleasing night of musical theater Saturday with its second performance of "Gershwin at Folly," which runs through April 26 at the Dock Street Theatre. It's hard to disappoint when the tunes are by Gershwin, the singing is Broadway quality, the live accompaniment is provided by skilled players in the pit, the scenery is by artist Jonathan Green and the lead, Ian Lowe, delivers a dynamic and believable version of the great American composer.
Julian Wiles, founder and producing artistic director of the company, wrote the book, skillfully incorporating familiar Gershwin tunes and a couple of Lowcountry spirituals into the serviceable story line. There wasn't a lot of tension or conflict, except for a smidgen of amorous angst between the Southern Belle (the charismatic Katrin Murdock) and the Yankee Italian-American (an earnest Jacob Dickey), and a touch of dissonance between tradition and social change.
The show does highlight race relations of the 1930s, when Gershwin visited Folly Beach and worked with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward on the opera "Porgy and Bess," but the emphasis is on getting along and having fun together.
Conflict wasn't really the point. This show was most concerned with finding ways to please the audience with hearty performances of classic songs. A special shout-out goes to Karen Yvette Reid, who played the nightclub singer and Lowcountry native Sapphire with gusto and terrific vocal flair.
Lowe, an actor and pianist in New York City, spent a lot of time behind the piano on stage, singing Gershwin's tunes and accompanying himself - or so it seemed. It wasn't clear to me whether Lowe was really playing or pianist-conductor Sam Henderson was tickling the ivories. Same goes for Manny Houston, playing juke joint musician Jasbo Brown. Houston, too, is a trained pianist who put his fingers in precisely the right places at the right times, making it seem like he was the one producing the sound. Maybe he was.
Ostensibly, we were to catch a glimpse Gershwin's creative process, but this was never presented in any overt way; we were given to understand that the theater star from New York City was inspired by the beauty of the Lowcountry's sea islands, the taste if its fresh seafood and the sincerity of its black residents.
The performance, which featured appealing two-dimensional set design by Green and some not-terribly-ambitious tap dancing, did have one truly authentic moment: an a cappella rendition of the spiritual "Hush, Little Baby" sung by Gullah crabbers at the dock. The song mesmerized Gershwin on stage and touched the hearts of those sitting in the audience. It was successful not only because of the beautiful performance but because of its honesty and respect.
Through the Gershwin character, Wiles managed to deliver a message of tolerance; and some funny lines uttered by reporter Frank Gilbreth (Jesse Siak) poked good fun at the old News and Courier. Gilbreth, by the way, really did write stories about Gershwin's visit. And Gershwin really did work out tunes on an upright piano delivered to a beach cottage, and actually walked along the dunes, and was genuinely moved by the rhythms and melodic lilt of Gullah music.
The show, which was produced twice before, in 2003 and 2007, ends with Gershwin, uncharacteristically introspective, at the shore listening to the waves and hearing in his head the song "Summertime." Behind him, in the glow of the summer night, Michal S. Johnson intoned this oh-so-famous song with lyrical ease. It was simultaneously a glimpse into the future and a memory of the past.
Editor's Note: This review has been modified to express less certainty about whether Lowe and Houston were actually playing piano.
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