"S'Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical" at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre really is wonderful. OCT's production is as elegant and vibrant as the luscious Gershwin music it showcases.
The show's director and choreographer, Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo, describes "S'Wonderful" as "the biggest little show ever." It is easy to see why OCT's production staff might have been initially daunted. The production features more than 40 songs by the Gershwin brothers presented in five distinct skits, each set in a different place and time period. Each of those skits calls for a different style of choreography, not to mention costumes and musical pacing.
The Gershwin repertoire covers more than 80 years of classic and timeless American music — Broadway musicals, film scores, a full-length opera and major orchestral concert works. "S'Wonderful," conceived and written by Ray Roderick with musical arrangements by Rick Hip-Flores, is unique because the Gershwin estate is notoriously picky about granting compilation performance rights to the songs.
Giancarlo assembled a cast of five bright young actors for "S'Wonderful," all but one making their OCT debut. Madelyn Adams, Catie Marron, Mikey Perdue, Britney Simpson and Galen Schloming have an astonishing range of vocal and dance skills. They are all accomplished performers and it is a pleasure to watch them create distinct characters as the onstage skits unfold.
The first story is set in 1928 New York and is filled with the rhythm of tap shoes. In the story, bookended by the Gershwin standards "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "I've Got Rhythm," Harold is a young newspaper typesetter wishing he could be an investigative reporter. He thinks he has discovered the elusive "chic thief" in an attractive young woman placing a classified ad (the little known song "Boy Wanted"). He trails her and, of course, falls in love. The skit features Schloming, a veteran of the Cabaret as well as Camelot Theatre and the Rogue Opera, and Adams, a recent graduate of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts.
We move on to 1957 New Orleans, where Nina (Simpson, also a recent PCPA graduate) is a nightclub singer who has been betrayed by her boyfriend (Perdue, a new graduate of Chico State University with a degree in musical theater) and her best friend (Adams). As they send her postcards from faraway places, she imagines their adventures in Vienna ("By Strauss"), London ("A Foggy Day"), Havana ("Just Another Rhumba"). This skit is also filled with music from "Porgy and Bess"—"Summertime," "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon" and "It Ain't Necessarily So"— and Simpson has a great, smoky contralto to carry them off.
Off we go to Paris in 1939. A young sailor (Perdue) falls in love with a French girl (Marron, also from PCPA) and we are transported into the mood of "An American in Paris" through a haunting ballet, into the reality of World War II ("Strike Up the Band") and the couple's parting ("Our Love is Here to Stay").
Then it's 1948 Hollywood. A shy, awkward makeup artist (Adams) imagines the handsome movie star (Perdue) falling for her and whisking her off to stardom. The skit begins and ends with "Funny Face" bracketing Gershwin favorites such as "Do It Again," "They All Laughed" and "Nobody But You."
The final musical bit is a delightful revue of more familiar Gershwin hits, presented this time without a story line. The five actors take turns singing and dancing to "Lady Be Good," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "Shall We Dance," closing with "Embraceable You."
Musical director John Taylor is onstage, presiding over a grand piano. Taylor is a skilled performer on his own and his accomplished accompaniment to the many Gershwin styles is absolutely breathtaking.
Kerri Lea Robbins designed the astonishingly detailed and lovely costumes, true to each era. Craig Hudson's spare and elegant set is set off by Kody Johnson's nostalgic video projections establishing time and place — everything from news headlines to the skyline of Paris to the iconic entrance to Paramount Studios.
"S'Wonderful" runs through Nov. 3. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays, with brunch matinees at 1 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $33 to $37, with bistro seating available for $20. Preview tickets are $19 for all seats. Dinner or brunch is available with advance reservations. Starters and desserts are served during intermission. For more information, call 541-488-2902 or go online to www.oregoncabaret.com.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.