If you like a Gershwin tune ...
Today at 8:14 PM
’S wonderful ’S marvelous
That you should care for me
’S awful nice, ’S paradise
’S what I love to see
— George and Ira Gershwin, “’S Wonderful,” 1927
Even if you don’t know it, you’re probably familiar with “Rhapsody in Blue.” There’s a better than average chance you’ve heard the 30 seconds of trilling clarinet that open the 1924 American classic. Maybe you’ve heard strains of the iconic piece in a United Airlines commercial. Or in the New York episode of “Glee.” Or in Disney’s “Fantasia 2000.” Or in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” Or even in a Nintendo Wii game.
There’s a good reason “Rhapsody in Blue” is the ubiquitous, timeless musical representation of a bustling New York City and composer George Gershwin is considered an American master. Allow the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre to demonstrate in its new production “’S Wonderful” beginning Thursday evening.
By the end of the show, you’ll be more than familiar with the composer’s signature piece and with the brothers Gershwin canon. And, if you’re already a Gershwin fan, you’re in for a singing-and-dancing treat bathed in blue.
Of course, not every song by George (music) and Ira (lyrics) can fit into a stage production that runs just under two hours. The show — full title: “’S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical” — opens with that rhapsodic clarinet solo, setting the stage for five stories that weave 42 Gershwin tunes through vignettes from 1924 to the present.
A curtain opens to reveal nearly 30 singers, dancers and musicians in period costumes performing a medley of featured songs. The script for the show, which premiered in 2010, calls for five actors to tell the five stories, but director Jennifer Schmidt wanted a more robust singing and dancing experience for the production.
Pre-recorded music was an option, but not one Schmidt was willing to consider. “You can’t compromise on the band,” she said. “And this way the audience is getting two bangs for their buck — live music and a show.”
The rich set decoration features a baby grand piano, backlit music stands, vintage microphones and projected landmarks establishing locales.
Between scenes, dancers set the stage for the upcoming story pirouetting to “Rhapsody” played by the seven-piece band.
“It’s Gershwin, you have to dance,” Schmidt said.
Many of the cast members share Schmidt’s love of the songs of the great American composers of the 20th century — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin — and regularly appear in JRT productions of “1940s USO Show,” which Schmidt wrote and directs annually. Over the years she and others have collected their own 1940s costumes and the theater has added to the wardrobe when budget allows. “We have a room for the era,” Schmidt said.
Many cast members recently invested in vintage-style ballroom dancing shoes, adding to the authentic look and feel of the show and to Kristin Belisle’s choreography. “And to our ability to walk by the end of the night,” Schmidt said.
Holding hands at midnight
’Neath the starry sky
Nice work if you can get it
And you can get it if you try
— George and Ira Gershwin, “Nice Work if You Can Get it,” 1937
The first story, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” is set in 1924 New York City. We meet Harold (Lucas Schmidt, Jennifer’s son), a newspaper typesetter who dreams of being an investigative reporter. In a lunch-hour quest, the lanky lad finds himself dressed in a wedding gown and garters, handcuffed to a beauty (Emily May) with expensive taste. Songs include “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “I Got Rythm” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
Summertime and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush, little baby; don’t you cry
— George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, “Summertime,” 1935
The show then moves to New Orleans 1957 for “Of Thee I Sing.” JRT newcomers Kristy Biedleman and Jill Janitis play best friends who part ways because of, what else, a man. He’s played by JRT vet Josh Baldwin. Songs include “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Of Thee I Sing,” “A Foggy Day” and “Summertime.”
You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto;
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
Let’s call the whole thing off!
— George and Ira Gershwin, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” 1937
Then, back in time and across the Atlantic to France on the eve of World War II. Husband and wife Ben and Shelley Bolt play a GI and a waitress in “An American in Paris.” Besides the title tune, songs include “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
I love your funny face
Your sunny, funny face
Though you’re a cutie with more than beauty
You’ve got a lot of personality for me
— George and Ira Gershwin, “Funny Face,” 1927
“Funny Face” takes us to Hollywood in 1948 where makeup artist Jane, played by Susan McNabb, lives out an on-screen fantasy with matinee idol Gene, played by McNabb’s husband, Jeff McNabb. Songs include “Do, Do, Do (What You’ve Done, Done, Done Before)” and the title song.
There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see
I hope that he, turns out to be
Someone who’ll watch over me
— George and Ira Gershwin, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” 1926
In the final story, set in the present day, Pam Williams is a grandmother reading a letter to her grandson, educating him on the timelessness of Gershwin love song. “He Loves and She Loves” includes “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
“’S Wonderful” runs Feb. 2 through 12, Thursdays through Sundays. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays 3 and 8 p.m; Sundays 2 and 7 p.m.
For information on tickets or to make a reservation, call the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center at 753-1010 or purchase online at www.jonesboroughtn.org. You can see production notes and the cast list at jonesboroughtheatre.com.
Ticket prices: general admission, $14 and students and seniors, $12.
The theater is at 125½ West Main St. in downtown Jonesborough, across from Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, next door to the Historic Eureka Inn.