In a memorable “Seinfeld” moment, Jerry, invited to a Mel Torme concert, scoffs: “I can’t watch a man sing a song. They get all emotional, they sway. It’s embarrassing.” You start to feel that way watching the singing and swaying in Words By Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook. Then, suddenly, you’re in the spell of the Gershwin brothers – composer George and lyricist Ira. You hear Crooner (that’s his title) Andrew Ableson render “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, one of the most romantic songs ever written, and you too become emotional.
“How Long …” also may have been the Gershwins’ sexiest song, we’re told by Nicholaus Mongiardo-Cooper, who portrays Ira and presides over this heartfelt homage to Ira and George by Joseph Vass. David Ellenstein directs the world-premiere at the North Coast Rep, which feels more like a lounge show with a narrator than anything strictly theatrical. The stars of the production are the 24 nuggets from the so-called “Great American Songbook,” all of which feature Ira Gershwin’s lyrics in collaboration not only with his brother but with Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen. That’s the A team when it comes to Broadway and Hollywood musical standards. Besides “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, you’ll hear “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “A Foggy Day (In London Town),” “I Got Rhythm” and many more.
Mongiardo-Cooper’s affable Ira, from the comfort of an easy chair or off to one side of the stage, fills in biographical details and back story for the tunes, which are then sung (and in some cases danced to as well) by Ableson and the conspicuously taller Meghan Andrews, as the Chanteuse. Even with the timeless songwriting, this is where some of Words By brings to mind one of those reality-show songfests, just with superior music. When Mongiardo-Cooper joins in, as on the crackling “Quartet Erotica,” there’s a greater resemblance to actual theater here. In any event, the accompaniment on stage by a tight and toe-tapping band (playwright Vass on piano, Bob Boss on guitar, Duncan Moore on drums and Gunnar Biggs on bass) is “S’Wonderful,” as Ira might say.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.