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THEATRE PREVIEW: Gershwin at Folly

Bohemian Rhapsody: Gershwin goes native in a Sottile extravaganza

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Gershwin at Folly
Charleston Stage
Sept. 13-15, Sept. 20-22 at 8 p.m.
Sept. 16, 23 at 3 p.m.
$36.50, $34.50/seniors, $26.50/students
Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.
(843) 577-7183

After low-key shows like Denmark Vesey: Insurrection and Butterflies Are Free, it's good to see Julian Wiles in his element for the big, bold musical, Gershwin at Folly. Fans of the genre won't be disappointed with the writer/director's first show in the Sottile Theatre.

This extravaganza covers George Gershwin's working vacation on Folly Island, where he hooked up with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward to develop Porgy and Bess as a popular opera. Riding high on the success of his songs, Gershwin is depicted here as the 1934 equivalent of a horny rock god. He parties all night, energetically chasing chorus girls and fulfilling his dreams. Only one goes unrealized — he's yet to find his soulmate.

While Gershwin stays single, another New Yorker meets a Southern belle on the beach. Johnny Ramano (of the Brooklyn Ramanos) falls for Mary Singer. The disparities between the rough and ready crooner and the girl steeped in tradition are the core of the whole show; the old meets the new and something magical results.

Barry Anderson brings the right amount of zest to the part of Gershwin. He sings, tap dances, and plays the piano; if it was in the script, he'd surely do all three at the same time. With a gleaming, ever-present smile, a wiry physique, and an enthusiastic restlessness, he occasionally resembles a chipmunk on steroids.

Anderson's ably abetted by over 30 cast members, all giving polished performances. Especially memorable are Warnell Berry Jr. as Jackson and Teresa Smith as Maisy, feeding Gershwin shrimp and grits and schooling him on the slow pace of the south. As Johnny, Sam Weber almost out-vims Anderson. He gives his brash Italian-American character a layer of humility and optimism that endears him to the audience. As Mary, Nicole Nicastro carries some important musical numbers with her strong vibrato.

The Heywards are amazed when Gershwin fills their home with hard-partying locals. J.C. Conway gives the harrumphing DuBose Heyward great credibility; Beth Curley is flawless as Mrs. Heyward, an underappreciated but intrinsic part of Porgy's development. Their studious personalities are a fun foil for their guest.

Wiles uses the reports of News and Courier writer Frank Gilbreth Jr. to add details to the story of Gershwin's visit. So it's fitting that Gilbreth appears in the show, notebook in hand. Ralph Prentice Daniel plays him with a believable mixture of stoicism and wonder. There are also a couple of appearances from Harlem singers Sammy Sam, Ruby, and Sapphire (Charlton Dews, Quinnesh Randolph, and Christine Walters). They take complex, relatively slow songs like "That Sweet and Low Down" and keep them interesting.

The show's real highlights are provided by the Gullah folk visited by Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. Wiles succeeds in the nigh-impossible task of capturing the atmosphere of a Praise House meeting with a congregation of 13 people. This is thanks in part to the preacher who leads the service, pumped with the spirit of the Lord without lapsing into parody. He's portrayed by Warnell Berry Jr. in a second role.

Wiles is honest in his hints of race relations in 1930s-era South Carolina. Jackson and Maisy speak their minds yet know their place as they serve Gershwin's needs. They express concern at his plans to invite "coloreds and whites" to a hootenanny under the same roof. When Gershwin goes crabbing for the first time, the Gullahs receive him with equal parts mirth and amazement.

The Gullah folk gleefully dance one minute and listen to a sorrowful lullaby the next. It's hard to believe that the crabbing crew could also be such happy hoofers. But Shineika Robinson (in the role of Miss Annie May) successfully sells this abrupt emotional switch and the more fantastical aspects of the musical. Later, Mishonna McCottry adds equal credence to "Summertime."

Unlike last season's Ragtime, Gershwin at Folly's plot doesn't feel like an excuse just to get from one song to the next. Slower tempo numbers, particularly in Act Two, make the pace drag when it should be building to its almighty climax. The love affair between Mary and Johnny gets dull, but as in his version of A Christmas Carol, Wiles' minor characters help spice things up. Uncle Angelo (Ross Magoulas) and Aunt Charlotte (played on opening night by Marybeth Clark) are vivid characters, not mere reflections of their respective nephew and niece. The loving relationship between Jackson and Maisy is hinted at in subtle tones, not simply played for laughs.

Stefanie Christensen's impressive sets and Barbara Young's costumes help create the '30s musical effect that Wiles is after. The live orchestra lends more Hollywood overtones to the multiple Gershwin tunes, conducted by Wendell Smith who also plays some mean piano. Violinists John Wiley and Sytske Hillenius are outstanding, and the music's only let down by a few blue notes from trumpeter Steven Berry.

With several show-stoppers and a skillful cast, this is a fitting tribute to Gershwin and a fine start to Charleston Stage's 30th season.

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