KT Sullivan & Mark Nadler

The Gershwins’ American Rhapsody

This tribute to the gershwin brothers is more than song. It takes lots of rhythm, tap dancing and playing the piano from all sides of the instrument.

By Deborah Quilter

There are really three characters in American Rhapsody, an off-Broadway revue of the music of George and Ira Gershwin: the satiny-voiced KT Sullivan, the debonair Mark Nadler and the ever-present piano which, at times, appears to play itself. Surely, no pianist has done more with just one hand than Mark Nadler. He accompanies himself with bass notes while waving and gesticulating with his right hand. He also plays standing up, standing atop the piano bench, sitting beneath the piano and while dancing a complicated tap routine. He accomplishes all with finesse and verve. But Nadler tops all that by playing “Rhapsody In Blue” on the piano while singing “S’Wonderful”—never missing a note in either number!

Nadler says he’s been doing that for a long time: “I tried it as a game. When I finally got ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ into my fingers, I was playing it under everything, even ‘Happy Birthday!’ ” Even if you’ve heard it hundreds of times, Gershwin music still moves you. Who can argue with songs like “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me?” Yet, when Sullivan sings “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” her arch phrasing makes you hear the song for the first time, and her rendition of “But Not For Me” is wrenching. She explains her process this way: “You act out the words first, then paraphrase the song according to what it means to you. If you find something hot in you (like a personal memory), the song will be hot for both you and the audience.”

Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan in American Rhapsody

Singing is challenge enough, but the duo also manages to dance on a stage barely big enough for the grand piano. Nadler quips that the reason he dances is because “the stage isn’t big enough for a chorus.” Of his tap routine, he says: “I have really good, fast feet; my feet can do any sound. But my dancing wasn’t polished until choreographer Donald Saddler came around.” Sullivan has the added challenge of performing her steps in three-inch heels. The musical staging by Donald Saddler includes the Charleston, waltzing and soft shoe, but perhaps the fastest action happens backstage between scenes for Sullivan’s four costume changes. The hardest is decking herself out in a tuxedo. You’d think men’s clothes would be easy, she suggests, but then she ticks off the sheer number of pieces: the shirt (with all those little buttons!) the pants, the spats, the vest, the cuff links, the jacket, the bow tie and earrings. “Thank goodness Mark gets a lot of applause during his number,” she says—it gives her more time to dress.

Their witty patter pays homage to the Gershwins, and these two seem to know every detail: George died at the age of 38, but left a legacy of 557 songs, 31 orchestral and piano works, 28 musicals, three movies and one opera. “Can you imagine if he lived longer?” ponders Sullivan. Isn’t it a pity, as the song goes. This show will probably travel, so keep your eyes and ears open.