Play Review: Songs overpower story in ‘Words By’

Play Review: Songs overpower story in ‘Words By’
Front to back: Nicholas Monfiardo-Cooper as Ira Gershwin, with Meghan Andrews and Andrew Ableson sing some of the most well-known songs written by Ira and his brother George in the world premiere of “Words By, Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook,” now in production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques and John Howard

SOLANA BEACH — There are plenty of words, but not much story in “Words By, Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook,” by musician and author Joseph Vass. 

Its world premiere opened at the North Coast Repertory Theatre Oct. 21 and is directed by David Ellenstein, North Coast Repertory Theatre’s artistic director.

“Words By” is told from the perspective of Ira Gershwin (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) an American lyricist who wrote some of America’s most popular songs with his brother and composer George.

Throughout the production, either from a leather-bound armchair or pacing across the stage, Ira speaks directly to the audience, trying, through brief anecdotes, to illustrate what it was like to live and work with his brother and other composers.

He tells how it was George, the younger brother, who gravitated to the family’s new piano in their second-floor apartment while growing up in New York in the early 20th century; Ira preferred books to instruments. “For George it was the music, for me it was words,” he says.

As their professional careers grew, Ira tells about how he would have to fit his lyrics to music George had already created.

George became one of America’s most prolific composers with works as “Porgy and Bess,” “An American in Paris,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The production is hard to envision what it must have been like to see and hear how Ira and George worked together. Mongiardo-Cooper is joined onstage by a Chanteuse (Meghan Andrews), a Crooner (Andrew Ableson) and a four-piece band that includes author Vass on piano, Gunnar Biggs on bass, Bob Boss on guitar and Duncan Moore on drums, as if performing in a nightclub-like setting.

“Words By” may be closer to a musical revue than an actual play, featuring 25 of Ira Gershwin’s songs, including some of the more well-known he wrote with brother as, “Isn’t It A Pity,” “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “I Got Rhythm.”

There are some musical insights from Ira, whose contributions helped to shape American music, as he strove to tell “deeper stories, deeper songs,” and craft “American images,” with his words. He wanted to write songs using the “ordinary word” as notes.

“My lyrics are not poetry,” Ira says. But his standards in crafting songs went a long way in establishing the American Standard.

Ira quotes his friend and American lyricist E.Y. Harburg, describing what music and words do: “Music makes you feel. Words make you think a thought. A song makes you feel a thought.”

It’s unclear at what point in Ira’s life the production is supposed to take place, but there is the mention of George’s death in the second half of the play. George died in 1937 from a brain tumor at the age of 38. Ira died in 1983.

If you’re looking to take away a deeper understanding about the Gershwin brothers, their writing process and what it was like to compose in the 1920s, ‘30s and later this isn’t the place to start. But if you’re looking to hear some of the more popular collaborations between Ira and George Gershwin then “Words By” won’t fail you. No, they can’t take that away from this production.

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Ste. D, Solana Beach

When: Now playing through Nov. 18. Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $40 – $57. Call (858) 481-1055 or northcoastrep.org

 

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