Friday night's Holland Performing Arts Center audience can legitimately pick any of several performing-arts genres to typify “Here to Stay: The Gershwin Experience.” But the vote here goes to 16 unforgettable minutes in which one of America's seminal musical moments was aurally re-created in their hearing.
In writing about pianist and show creator Kevin Cole's accomplishment in presenting “Rhapsody in Blue” — complete with 50-plus long-lost measures from George Gershwin's original piano manuscript — one runs the unfortunate risk of selling short an evening's worth of captivating Gershwin interpretations by the Omaha Symphony, singer Sylvia McNair and vocalist and tap-dancer Ryan VanDenBoom.
All were superb. And Cole's multimedia creation, not to mention his peers' performances, offers ample alternatives for highlights of the imprint Gershwin left on American performing arts in his short life. But Cole's performance of the “Rhapsody” with the symphony at the end of Friday's first act was truly electrifying — not least because he fully justifies expert testimony that he captures the distinct nuances of Gershwin's piano performances of his own works.
When he was 15, the middle-aged Cole told Friday's audience, he wangled a dinner invitation to the New York City home of Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski and played a medley of Gershwin tunes for him. Jablonski introduced him to Gershwin family members, who agreed with Jablonski's initial impression: When Cole played Gershwin on the piano, he sounded like Gershwin himself. That helped cement a career path that began, he said, when he first heard “Rhapsody in Blue” at age 7 in a late-night movie at his grandmother's home.
If you attend tonight's or tomorrow afternoon's remaining performances, you can judge for yourself. The multimedia aspect of the show includes film clips in which Gershwin, who died of a brain tumor in 1937, plays his own music. Though the clips are interspersed throughout the presentation, one occurs in the second act at a point when the sounds of Cole's “Rhapsody” and his other Gershwin renditions should still be ringing in listeners' ears.
Cole, who tells stories of Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira throughout the show, does an impressive job of providing the context for Gershwin's “Rhapsody” premiere with Paul Whiteman at New York's Aeolian Hall on Feb. 12, 1924. But if listeners are familiar with recordings by Leonard Bernstein and other artists, they will be surprised to hear unfamiliar yet exciting passages throughout Cole's solo credenzas. They come from pianist-musician Alicia Zizzo's 2009 reconstruction of Gershwin's original piano score, which sadly was trimmed when the original sheet-music publisher told the copyists to shorten it.
One cannot leave the discussion of Friday night's “Rhapsody” without noting the symphony's superlative accompaniment, beginning with clarinetist Carmelo Galante's execution of the piece's opening passage. Other solo highlights in the evening's program included Will Clifton's string-bass performance on “Slap That Bass” and the drum battle between J.B. Ferguson, who handled the drum-set duties, and VanDenBoom, who topped him as he worked a single snare drum while tap-dancing at the same time.
McNair, who has sung in Omaha many times, entices listeners in “The Man I Love,” “But Not for Me” and several other classics and executes “Summertime” with mournful dignity beautifully introduced by Scott Quackenbush's muted-trumpet solo. Audiences will love a re-enactment of Gershwin's song-plugging days in which he plays the composer and VanDenBoom, trying out “‘The Half of It, Dearie' Blues” in song and dance, portrays Omaha native Fred Astaire.