J. Kent Barnhart’s dazzling performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” was more than worth the price of admission to “Rhapsody in Gershwin” at Quality Hill Playhouse.
Barnhart, Quality Hill’s executive director who does triple duty as emcee, pianist and singer, tackled George Gershwin’s solo piano arrangement with all the energy and brashness of 1920s New York City. He coaxed the same mournful melody from the piano keys that’s usually provided by a clarinet in symphonic versions.
The audience responded with a thunderous and well-deserved standing ovation after the last crashing chord Saturday night.
“Rhapsody in Gershwin,” first produced by the Quality Hill Playhouse in 2008, is the latest encore of past favorite shows to celebrate Barnhart’s 25th year as a director and producer.
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The first act features a solid compilation of favorites. Melinda MacDonald’s voice seems made for standards like “The Man I Love” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” She and Barnhart teased each other in “Do, Do, Do” and “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today.”
They seemed more comfortable in their duets — but then they’ve worked together for years — than the pairing of LaTeesha McDonald Jackson and Tim Noland, who shared a flirty “That Certain Feeling” and later “He Loves and She Loves.”
Jackson delivered a poignant rendition of one of my personal favorites, “But Not for Me,” and Noland did a stirring version of “Liza.”
Joining Barnhart onstage were Ken Remmert on drums and Brian Wilson on bass. Remmert, a talented comedic actor as well as a drummer, got a few laughs during his banter with Barnhart.
The Gershwins — George was the composer, older brother Ira the lyricist — wrote for Broadway shows (and later films). Many of the shows were quickly forgotten, but the songs became standards, recorded by a variety of artists from Frank Sinatra to Sting and Ella Fitzgerald to Amy Winehouse.
“Rhapsody in Gershwin” follows the usual pattern of Quality Hill’s cabaret shows, with Barnhart’s droll delivery of anecdotes and information between each set of songs.
The pace picked up dramatically in the second act with a roller coaster of emotion-packed numbers. Jackson is featured in the opening, a jazzy do-wop version of “Summertime” from the American folk opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Later Jackson’s operatic voice captured the anguish and grief in “My Man’s Gone Now,” also from “Porgy and Bess.”
Several songs from the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film “Shall We Dance” lightened the mood. Noland shone on “They All Laughed,” taking pleasure in love going right for a change. MacDonald and Wilson, on “the big bass fiddle,” had fun with “Slap That Bass.” Then MacDonald and Barnhart amused with “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
The show’s penultimate piece is “Rhapsody in Blue,” prefaced with Barnhart’s explanation of its history. Although I found it fascinating and wish he’d shared more about the Gershwins in the first act (check out the lobby displays for additional information), I sensed some restlessness in the audience. Once he started playing, though, people were spellbound.
The show ends with Quality Hill’s signature harmonies on “Love Is Here to Stay.”
Note: Listen to the music piped in before the show and during intermission; it’s a digitized version of piano rolls made by George Gershwin himself.
“Rhapsody in Gershwin” runs through July 6 at Quality Hill Playhouse, 303 W. 10th St. Call 816-421-1700 or go to www.qualityhillplayhouse.com.