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THEATER REVIEW: Check out “Words By: Ira Gershwin And The Great American Songbook”

If you’re talking about American songwriting royalty, you can’t get much better than George and Ira Gershwin.

The more famous, of course, is George, composer of countless hits and numerous Broadway shows. But this show is about “the other Gershwin” – George’s older brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics for most of his brother’s songs.

George and Ira were born on the lower east side of Manhattan to a Ukrainian-born father and a Russian-born mother. The famous Gershwin family piano, now on display at the Library of Congress, was bought for Ira, who quickly realized that practicing scales was neither his forte nor his interest, but discovered a facility for writing words for his brother’s melodies.

But Ira worked several other jobs – steam room attendant, carnival business manager, photographer’s assistant – before he decided to try to make a career as a lyricist.

North Coast Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Joseph Vass’ “Words By: Ira Gershwin And The Great American Songbook,” already extended through Nov. 18 and directed by David Ellenstein.

Gershwin also wrote with other composers of the “golden age of the musical,” including Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke and Kurt Weill. “Words By” is a musical/biographical show boasting 25 songs with Gershwin’s lyrics.

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper is wisely cast as Gershwin. He has an easy storytelling manner – even looks a bit like Ira – and a lovely tenor voice, unfortunately not heard enough and not at all until the second act. I almost wish this were a one-man show with combo.

Speaking of the combo, they are excellent. Playwright and Music Director Vass plays piano; the others are Gunnar Biggs on bass; Bob Boss on guitar and Duncan Moore on drums.

Two singers – called Chanteuse (Meghan Andrews) and Crooner (Andrew Ableson) – interpret most of the songs. Andrews has a pretty soprano voice and seems most comfortable in the stratosphere, which is not where most of Gershwin’s music lies. Still, she looks lovely in Alina Bokovikova’s beautiful costumes.

Ableson seems to be trying for an indecipherable effect, or perhaps trying to emulate someone else. It is not often successful, though he does amuse on the “Porgy and Bess” standard “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

“Words By” has a lot going for it – a good book, an engaging star and some of the world’s best songs, played by a terrific combo. With different singers, it could easily have a long life.

The details

“Words By: Ira Gershwin And The Great American Songbook” plays through Nov. 18 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call 858-481-1055 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.