Pictured: The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City. Photo by Tim Scott.
By Abigail Trabue
George Gershwin was a genius. There’s really no other way to put it, and yet, that is almost too simple a description for a man whose career — cut short by a brain tumor at 38 — defined a generation of composers, whose songs have been covered by some of the greatest vocalists of any generation, and, to this day, continues to inspire theatrical re-imaginings of his work, most recently the 2015 stage production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS which recently had its spectacular Kansas City premiere.
So it’s no surprise that MTH Theater, a company so committed to celebrating the American Songbook, would gravitate towards Gershwin’s work creating an original production by MTH founder George Harter, highlighting Gershwin’s short lived life and numerous accomplishments, many of which include his lyricist brother Ira, who’s iconic lyrics continue to inspire a generation of actors and storytellers.
AN EVENING WITH GEORGE GERSHWIN, under the direction of Producing Artistic Director Sarah Crawford, is silky smooth, overflowing with Gershwin favorites, and featuring some of the most talented musicians you will see on one stage.
Hosted by Harter, who is so easygoing on stage and has such a charming way of making Gershwin come alive, the evening moves easily between musical numbers and Gershwin history lesson. Vocally, we couldn’t have asked for anything more. Lauren Braton, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Molly Hammer, and Justin McCoy are four of the finest vocalists I’ve seen assembled on a Kansas City stage. They knock us out over and over, song after song, and with four-part harmonies that seem to come out of thin air, they leave you speechless.
Braton makes “Summertime” look easy, and there is nothing easy about “Summertime.” If I could have reached out and high-fived her as she left the stage, I would have. She owned that song. McCoy, with his rich baritone, is so easy to watch on stage. His voice is like butter. Someone, please cast him as Javert in Les Miserables. Thank you. Cullum is a young Frank Sinatra on stage, charming and suave, with a hint of trouble. Hammer was born to sing Gershwin, bringing a warmth and sultriness to “Someone to Watch Over Me” that left us all in a trance, although, I must admit pulling the lyrics “as handsome” out of the song was jarring. There is this beautiful build and sadness in “Someone to Watch Over Me” and I couldn’t understand the musical choice to stop the emotion spilling forth. It certainly didn’t diminish Hammer’s vocals, but the alteration was bold enough to change intention and I’m not sure it worked.
The evening undoubtedly belongs to The People’s Liberation Big Band Of Greater Kanas City. Under the leadership of the insanely talented Brad Cox, These players are masters of their craft. They bring Gershwin to life in the most incredible way, especially during “Hebrew to Harlem Mashup” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” both of which were arranged by Cox for this production.
AN EVENING WITH GEORGE GERSHWIN has all the rhythm, all the style, and all the talent, to remind us why Gershwin’s music continues to survive and thrive almost a century later. I appreciate MTH Theater’s commitment to keeping the American Songbook front and center, and reminding us why Gershwin truly is S’Wonderful.
AN EVENING WITH GEORGE GERSHWIN runs through August 27th. For more information visit mthkc.com.