It was almost exactly one year ago — Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, to be exact — that Shari Lynn and pianist Jim Howard opened “George & Ira and Shari & Jim,” a superb retrospective on the lives, times, and music of George and Ira Gershwin, in the Brad Powell Theatre in Iwilei. Now Lynn and Howard are opening 2016 with “Ira & George and Shari and Jim.”
Clearly, this is not a revival of last year’s production. The title makes it clear that Lynn and Howard have returned with a new show. The opening night performance on Friday found Lynn and Howard excelling once again at blending theater and cabaret, joyous performance and engaging educational entertainment. If last year’s show was “Gershwin 101” than call this one “Gershwin 102.” By any name it is a marvelous show.
Lynn — vivacious and charismatic as ever — is the star and narrator. She sings, she dances, she slips in some one-liners and does a bit of improv. Howard does a masterful job as Lynn’s accompanist. Over and above playing all that beautiful George Gershwin music he unobtrusively slips assorted melodic variations and other bits and pieces into the “background music” he plays under Lynn’s narration. For instance, when Lynn talks about “The Wizard of Oz” Howard plays a few bars of a familiar song from the film.
The show opens with an overview of the early life experiences of the brothers, born Israel (Ira) and Jacob (George) Gershowitz, from George’s early successes as a teenage “song plugger” on New York’s Tin Pan Alley through their tremendous success as a song writing team from the early 1920s until George’s death from a brain tumor in 1937.
“IRA & GEORGE AND SHARI & JIM”
A TAG Fundraiser
Where: The Brad Powell Theatre, 650 Iwilei Road
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 17
Admission: $40 suggested donation (general admission)
Info: 722-6941 or taghawaii.com
Note: Validated parking in the Regal Theater parking structure.
So what’s in a title? One of the major differences between “Ira & George and Shari & Jim” and its predecessor is that “Ira & George …” continues the story beyond 1937 and includes some of the many songs Ira wrote with other composers after George’s death.
Among those later songs is “The Man That Got Away,” written with composer Harold Arlen for the 1954 production of “A Star Is Born.” Lynn makes it the dark and dramatic climax of the second half of the show.
An even bigger difference this year is that Lynn and Howard are sharing the stage with veteran stage performer Kip Wilborn. Adding Wilborn was an inspired idea. He adds a powerful male voice to the show and gives Lynn a vocalist to interact with. Wilborn has great showcase numbers in “A Foggy Day” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” He also partners beautifully with Lynn on a string of songs that includes “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Also noteworthy — in showing the range of the Gershwin brothers as writers, and of Lynn, Howard and Wilborn as performers — are “The Real American Folk Song Is A Rag,” “Embraceable You,” and a string of songs from the Gershwin opera, “Porgy and Bess.”
Howard switches from piano to flute and plays a sprightly bird-like melody for “Little Jazz Bird.” Lynn does her dynamite impression of Ethel Merman on “I Got Rhythm.” And, a song originally titled “The Music Hour,” and later re-titled “Tchaikovsky,” shows the Gershwin brothers in 1920 doing with the names of Russian composers what Rap Reiplinger did more than a half-century later with “Japanese Roll Call.”
Director Brad Powell and graphic/video designer Brian Gibson add another dimension to the show with a collection of film clips, sound bites, show posters, vintage photos and, pardon the cliche, an iconic Al Hirschfeld caricature of the brothers at work (Powell and Gibson use a 1951 recording of Danny Kaye zipping through all the Russian names in “Tchaikovsky”).
Photo portraits of Ira and George are spotlighted on one side of the stage. The light on George’s portrait goes dark when Lynn shares the circumstances of his death. The light on Ira’s portrait remains bright until Lynn tells how Ira “joined his brother” 46 years later. Then it goes out too.
Anyone who enjoys the music of George and Ira Gershwin can count on enjoying “Ira & George and Shari & Jim.” Anyone who isn’t familiar with the Gershwins’ song book will find this show a perfect introduction.
“Ira & George and Shari & Jim,” by Shari Lynn; musical arrangements by Jim Howard; directed by Brad Powell; staging by Shari Lynn, additional staging by Brad Powell; set design by Rick “Pops” Crowell; graphic and video design by Brian Gibson; costumer supervision by Christine Valles; lighting design by Thomas Tochiki. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
With: Shari Lynn (vocals) accompanied by Jim Howard (piano), with special guest Kip Wilborn (vocals).