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Review: The living is pleasing with Charleston Stage's Gershwin

Gershwin at Folly is three hours of fun



Hi, my name is Leah, and I am, according to the George Gershwin portrayed in Julian Wiles' Gershwin on Folly, a "constipated reviewer." You know the type — a reviewer who's impossible to please, who'll never be happy with any show/music/performance, who'll never write anything kind.

As such, I should write a bitchy review of this play, right?

But here's the thing: this constipated reviewer left the Dock Street Theatre last night with a doofy smile on her face. The Charleston Stage production of Wiles' play was fun. Joyful. Energetic and exuberant. And dammit if it didn't make me happy.

In all seriousness, though, Gershwin at Folly, which opens Fri. April 4, is three hours of fun, musically stocked by Gershwin's timeless songbook, and chock full of some of the best talent I've had the pleasure of seeing on a Charleston stage.

You see, I find musicals inherently tricky. One bad singer can ruin an entire show. But the cast of Gershwin is made (mostly) of consummate professionals, with each singing voice stronger than the one before it. There were, perhaps, a few bad notes speckled throughout, but for the most part I was pleasantly surprised by the individuals singing...and even more so by the a capella harmonies. But more on that in a bit.

To set the scene, artist Jonathan Green has created impressionistic beachfronts and nightclubs, their rich, soothing colors creating a backdrop against which almost any play would shine. Directed by Marybeth Clark, Gershwin at Folly follows the world-famous composer on a 1934 trip to Folly Island. Gershwin is there to work with DuBose Heyward on the operatic production of Porgy and Bess. As Gershwin immerses himself in local culture, meeting the white upper class and the black people who serve them, he helps bring a community together, and finally finds the inspiration to write a masterpiece.

Producing a historical play like this is tough. For one, in 1934 Folly Island segregation ruled, and as such the casts are divided by color: black and white. The black cast sings and dances at the Indigo Club, down on the docks, and at the local church. The white cast is found at the Folly Beach Dance Pavilion and Heyward's beach cottage.

Each cast had its high points. The tapping of the white dancers was sprightly; the groovy moves of the black dancers were sassy and fun. Choreographer Cara Dolan had her work cut out for her, making sure each distinct style was not only performed, but celebrated, but her dancers delivered with gusto. And when all the dancers joined together for two show-stopping numbers, the whoops and shouts from the cast let us know: they were enjoying performing as much as we were enjoying watching. They delivered.

The singers did, too. Katrin Murdock who plays sweet well-bred Mary Pringle, was a lovely soprano. Her beau, Johnny, played by the feisty Jacob Dickey, crooned old standards like a pro. Sapphire, the New York jazz singer played by Karen Yvette Reid, had some pipes on her, too. But the best singing moments by far came when the black cast members sang together a capella, harmonizing a beautiful old lullaby and some fiery church gospel. Their voices blended like they were meant to be together, like it was predestined that they find each other. The results were magic.

More magic came in the form of New York-based actor, Ian Lowe, who played Gershwin. Each time he sat down to play at the piano was thrilling. It's always incredible to see a master at his craft,.

Then, in the end, when Michal S. Johnson stepped forward and sang those oh-so-familiar words from the opening of Porgy and Bess (Summertime...and the living's easy....), the audience froze. They listened in rapt enjoyment. Her voice was angelic.

Was the play perfect? No. I'm still constipated reviewer enough to admit bits of the dialog were saccharine and predictable, and some of the inside-Charleston jokes may fall a little flat on audiences in another city.

But when the curtain call came and the rest of the audience leaped to their feet ... so did I. Not because I felt like I had to, but because the play was magic, and the cast and crew deserved that standing ovation.

Constipated reviewer indeed.

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