The scintillating interplay between drummer Sam Wisman and bassist Jeff Harshbarger that opens “An Evening with George Gershwin” at MTH Theater serves immediate notice that stale conventions have no place in the bold original production. Featuring four excellent vocalists and accompaniment from the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, the two-act show gives Gershwin a strikingly stylish makeover.
Written, produced and hosted by MTH Theater founder George Harter, “An Evening with George Gershwin” combines elements of traditional cabaret with forward-thinking jazz in a consistently surprising survey of the life and times of the great composer.
Harter introduces a clever conceit following the ten-piece band’s playful overture. Using a “giant parabolic antenna” atop Crown Center and a “‘Back to the Future’ time travel app,” he conducts an interview with Gershwin before ceding the stage to vocalists Lauren Braton, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Molly Hammer and Justin McCoy for a rendition of “I Got Rhythm.”
Harter returns to the stage between most selections to provide biographical insights and compelling context. While he’s unflaggingly charming and possesses a mellifluous voice, Harter’s repeated appearances occasionally hinder the flow of the show. Even so, the audience on Sunday afternoon was clearly invested in the narrative. Many gasped in horror when Harter revealed that Gershwin died in 1937 at the age of 38.
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Gershwin’s immortal songs and Harter’s commanding presence aside, Hammer is the true star of “An Evening With George Gershwin.” Her lustrous reading of “Embraceable You” and her delightful duet with McCoy on “Isn’t It a Pity?” reveal aspects of her talent that are often obscured during her appearances at area jazz venues. Hammer’s stunning treatment of “I’ve Got a Crush on You” indicate that she’s a worthy heir to torch singers like Rosemary Clooney.
Cullum also excels. He and baritone saxophonist Brenna Hayes elicit big laughs with a slapstick routine on “Oh, Lady Be Good!” He assumes the role of a wisecracking Frank Sinatra as the band evokes the eccentric jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra in a surreal reading of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Overseen by bandleader and pianist Brad Cox, the small-scale version of the People’s Liberation Big Band plays an imaginative arrangement of “Fascinating Rhythm” that featured a manual typewriter.
Like the rest of the nearly flawless show, the selection brings Gershwin to life. As his brother Ira Gershwin put it in his lyric for “I Got Rhythm,” “who could ask for anything more?”
“An Evening With George Gershwin” continues at Musical Theater Heritage in Crown Center through Aug. 27. See mthkc.com or call 816-221-6987.