CHEERFUL LITTLE EARFUL Ira Gershwin and his four-piece band.
Of the Gershwin brothers — who together formed perhaps the most quintessential partnership of the American songbook — we tend to hear more, and more dazzlingly, about George. The brilliant and charismatic composer both hit fame and passed away earlier than his older brother Ira, whose rise as a lyricist was slower and less dramatic. So it’s satisfying now to hear the story of “the other Gershwin,” in Words By, Joseph Vass’s intelligent and deeply affectionate homage both to the wordsmith of the partnership and to the Golden Age of American music. Portland Stage Company stages this rich medley of history, anecdote, and song under the direction of David Ellenstein, starring the marvelous Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Ira.
With an armchair stage right, a bandstand stage left, and a system of fragmented projection screens high above the stage, Words By follows a loose chronology of the Gershwin brothers’ career as narrated by Ira, starting with their youth in New York City’s Lower East Side as children of Russian immigrants. Punctuated by projections of archival photos and hand-written drafts, Ira’s genial narrative meanders through musical colleagues, insider anecdotes, and musings on the songwriting process. His stories alternate with the songs themselves — “A Foggy Day,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” — performed by a terrific four-piece band led by the pianist and composer Hans Indigo Spencer, and sung by a “Chanteuse” (Amy Bodnar) and “Crooner” (Robert Yacko).
The script is engaging, accessible, and rife with interesting particulars. Vass, himself a pianist and composer as well as a playwright (and whose work has long focused on Jewish-American music), lovingly details Ira’s literary youth and the cohort of artists with whom he wrote the well-made, colloquial songs we now call “standards.” His Ira weaves a colorful anecdotal history — of journalist H.L. Mencken accepting his first piece; of the crucial advice given to him by British playwright Paul Potter (whom he met working in his dad’s Turkish bath) to “learn especially your American slang.” Vass also provides fascinating insights into the brothers’ seemingly chaotic collaborative process, and the intricate puzzle — which Ira describes as comparable to glass mosaics — of fusing just the right words to George’s rhythms.
As Ira, Mongiardo-Cooper — who created the role under Vass in 2012 — is warm, subtle, and an utter delight. With his aw-shucks, boyish glee, he is quick to beam and refreshingly humble. The focus of this Ira is to celebrate not himself, nor his talent or fame, but the happy fortuity of these words having come to exist with this music. He smiles appreciatively as the singers sing his lyrics and as the band plays, and it’s striking how completely, how sensitively, and with such pure pleasure he gives his attention to these songs. Any artist would be grateful for such an intelligent and fond audience.
Given the subtlety and skill of Mongiardo-Cooper’s Ira and of the script itself, it’s unfortunate that the singers of Ira’s words are, in this production, of average artistry in their phrasing, timbre, and general poise. They’re a little hammy and a little ham-handed, mugging goofily and popping p’s and b’s in the mic. On the other hand, Spencer’s band (Jacob Forbes on drums, Pat Keane on guitar, and Jim Lyden on upright) is stellar — spry, savvy, and of impeccable musicianship — and they are clearly having a blast up on the bandstand.