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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
'S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical”

The trick is to tell the stories with less dialogue. There’s an economy of dialogue that sets up the story. Then song and dance can do the work. I decided I wanted to tell stories that let the music and lyrics do most of the work all night. That’s what the audience is there for. —Ray Roderick, who conceived, wrote and directed the show.
S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical
A scene from 'S Wonderful (Photo: Photos by John Vecchiolla )
Is it too much to ask that a “jukebox” or “songbook” musical possess at least a modicum of inspiration? After all, the heavy lifting has already been done by the composers and lyricists, whose songs are being rechanneled into a “new” entertainment.

The idea that seems to have motivated Ray Roderick, who conceived, wrote and directed 'S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical, now at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, seems to have been a desire to include as many Gershwin songs in his concoction as possible — by my count 44. I can understand his adulation of the song catalog of George and Ira Gershwin, but when admiration turns to overkill no one is well served.

In deference to writing a new book for this musical, Roderick’s show consists of five short sketches on which he hangs songs and fragments thereof. The first, set in 1919 New York, is about a fledgling reporter looking for a scoop. There’s a “chic” thief on the loose and the reporter takes it upon himself to discover and catch the culprit. All this is little more than 20 minutes.

The second, set a decade later (1929) in New Orleans, concerns the breakup and ultimate reunion of a female singing duo. Next is a sentimental visit to Paris in the late 1930s. War is about to brake out and a young sailor and a French waif fall in love and are separated by the conflict.

The second act returns us to the US and 1940s Hollywood. A dreamy makeup girl imagines she has been picked for a screen test with a handsome male star only to be sadly awakened at the end. The final sketch is set in the present day and roams “from coast to coast.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these brief scenarios but they are certainly short changed dramatically. Roderick has turned — sometimes successfully, mostly forced — to Ira’s Gershwin’s lyrics to fill in the story gaps. Therein he makes a pivotal mistake. Songs are words AND music, and when one picks the bones of a song in search of “dialogue” the original purpose of the song is compromised.

I have no problem with songs taken out of context from their original setting, the Hit Parade did it for years. However, when they’re set in new surroundings that have no affinity for their core, its musical cannibalism. An example: when the two ladies are going their separate ways in the New Orleans sketch, the show turns to “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin Soon for New York.” I get it, but I can’t forget this is from Porgy and Bess and there’s no connection to these two women. Likewise, “Strike Up the Band” from Babes in Arms lends a military march air to the Parisian scene but still seems out of place.

When songs shake off the confines of these nearly inane sketches and stand on their own the musical genius of George and Ira shines through. Helping that musical magic come to life is happily in the hands of a first rate cast of five multi-talented performers, sometimes hampered by the structure of the show but more often than not free and easy. If they fit into somewhat stereotyped categories for musical revues they each do it perfectly. Deidre Haren, pretty as a picture and with a voice to match, is often the heroine of the sketches, but is still able to demonstrate considerable comic flair. Mary Millben is the jazzy blues singer belting out numbers with ease, while Stacey Harris is both a smooth vocalist and an antic comedian. The distaff side of the show is filled by Blakely Slaybaugh, a dancing dynamo with a rubber face just made for farce, and Sean Watkins who fills the handsome young hero role with vigor and a strong tenor voice.

Also on the plus side, very plus indeed, is the choreography of Vince Pesce. While he may have had to provide dances to fit far too many different moments, his work is witty, lively and generally complementary to the action at hand. He gives Harris and Slaybaugh some comic routines that make their gyrations look like a pretzel factory run amok.

The musical direction is by Ken Lundie dressed in a silky Liberace style white suit, He leads the seven-piece band with plenty of gusto and in the more classic selections — “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American In Paris” — with notable style.

There are obviously a lot of good things on stage. It’s a shame they haven’t been sorted out by priority.
‘S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical
Music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin
Conceived, written and directed by Ray Roderick
Cast: Deidre Harren (Leslie), Stacey Harris (Jane), Blakely Slaybaugh (Harold), Mary Millben (Nina) and Sean Watkins (Gene)
Scenic design: John Farrell
Costume design: Matthew Hemesath
Lighting: Andrew Gmoser
Musical direction: Ken Lundie
Choreography: Vince Pesce
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including a 30-minute intermission
Westchester Broadway Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, N.Y. (Exit 23 off the Saw Mill Parkway 592-2222 or
Through March 25. Performances: Thursdays through Saturday at 8, Sundays at 7 and matinees Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1, and Sundays at 1:30. Dinner or lunch served one and a half hours before performance.
Tickets are $52 to $75 and include meal and show. Beverage service and gratuities not included. Review by Chesley Plemmons at the matinee performance, Sunday, March 4.
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