MILWAUKEE, WI — Call him a genius or a national treasure, but make no mistake: George Gershwin was the real deal.
The American songwriter-composer-pianist — who created an enormous list of hit songs, shows and films, as well as an opera and revolutionary pieces for orchestra — is the focus of this weekend’s fascinating, entertaining, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Pops series performance.
Friday’s performance found Marvin Hamlisch on the podium and Gershwin appearing in images and video footage on a projection screen above the orchestra.
Pianist-vocalist Kevin Cole assumed the role of narrator, delivering a wealth of information about George and Ira Gershwin from the piano as though speaking to a gathering of friends.
Cole used that shirt-sleeves style, a perfect balance of concise information and personal warmth, to paint very touching pictures of the Gershwins. He sang with ease and an unaffected pop style, and brought a dynamic, improvisational feel to the brilliant piano solos of pieces such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and the Concerto in F.
Vocalist Sylvia McNair brought a straightforward, communicative style to vocals on several numbers, working the room with ease.
Vocalist and tap dancer Ryan VanDenBoom’s tap and soft-shoe numbers were a delightful, polished homage to the effortless, stylish dancing of tap masters Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Popping sounds from the sound system during the program’s first half and a false start by Hamlisch and the orchestra during the second half didn’t help the program, but Hamlisch added one of those stellar moments only he can pull off. In the midst of some offhand remarks, Hamlisch said that years ago, while he was working with Groucho Marx, Marx told him a story about Gershwin. It’s not every day one hears someone say, “Groucho told me … ”