Even though today’s Broadway musical scene reflects the sensibilities of current practitioners of the form (Schwartz, Webber, Abba and those South Park guys), the specter of George Gershwin still hangs heavy over the Great White Way. One cannot listen to “Rhapsody in Blue” without thinking of the Manhattan skyline (thanks, Woody), and songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “I Got Rhythm” have resonance for even the youngest music enthusiasts.
It’s this legacy that gave composer/lyricist Wayland Pickard the idea for The Ghost of Gershwin, making its premiere at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood. Pickard considered it unfair to the world that Gershwin died so suddenly at age 38 when he had so much more to give, and he thought it would be fun to imagine his spirit returning to earth to guide another up-and-coming scribe. That’s the premise of his new musical.
Featuring 17 new Gershwin-inspired songs, this is the story of Grant (Andrew Bourgeois), a young composer living in a Brooklyn apartment building who, faced with eviction for past-due rent, deals with the various show people who come in and out, all wanting him to create new material for them.
Though set in present-day New York, the plot is strictly Tin Pan Alley with some contemporary situations tossed in. Grant is the business partner of Dennis (Gregory Guy Gorden), his old college roommate, who is unhappily married to diva Nessa (Emma-Jayne Appleyard), Grant’s former fiancée, who’d left him at the altar. Wilfred (Kyle Bares) is Nessa’s choreographer, who openly lusts for Dennis, while Coronelia (Suzy London) is the long-suffering landlady with her own ambitions to return to the stage after her beloved husband’s death.
Grant’s building is being refurbished, and Coronelia allows him to bring an abandoned upright piano into his apartment, telling him that it had actually been used by the great Gershwin himself when he lived there as a young man. Grant scoffs at the notion, but when he reads aloud a note he finds in the piano’s case, he summons the legendary composer’s spirit (Daniel Lench), dressed in his best tux, who promises to guide Grant to success, both musically and romantically.
Meanwhile, a pretty young tiler, Mel (Jean Altadel), is working in the building and comes to Grant’s flat to measure his kitchen and bathroom. Even though the young man is still pining for Nessa, Gershwin knows better and insists that Mel is the girl for him.
With a book by Doug Haverty, music by Pickard and lyrics by Pickard and Laura Manning, The Ghost of Gershwin has some nice points but also sections of unevenness. It is strongest when focusing on classic moments like Coronelia’s ballad to her late husband (“After All this Time”) but lurches into camp as when Wilfred sings about his ideal man (“Spice Guy”), accompanied by a high-kicking chorus. There are a few too many songs, as some are repetitive, and a couple sound a bit too contemporary.
Still, the cast is game, and they all have serviceable voices. Bourgeois does well with the part of the ever-optimistic Grant, while Appleyard is also effective, transforming a character that could have been a bitchy diva into something warmer and more appealing. London started out unsure with the material but delivered some nice moments as the landlady longing to rekindle the sparks of her musical theater past. I would have liked to see Altadel bring a little more edge to Mel. After all, she’s a Broadway Baby herself, even getting the chance to deliver a torch song written by the man she loves — but she still remains rather…chaste.
All other technical credits, including Jules Aaron’s direction, Michele Bernath’s choreography and Chris Winfield’s modest, two-tier set design are fine (although I would’ve liked to have glimpsed treetops or sky through the apartment windows rather than curtains and blinds — but it may have been a matter of economy).
Lovers of classic ’30s musicals will certainly savor The Ghost of Gershwin, which plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Reservations can be made online or by calling (818) 763-5990.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=1451645309][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00006FN8K][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B000006P4Z]