Border Crossings

History Repeating

If Mary Cleere Haran didn't sing so well with that pure and reedy voice of hers, she'd make a solid living as a stand-up comic. Her patter is so amusing it takes a while to realize that as she's chatting, she's also bucking cabaret trends by not interspersing her songs exclusively with autobiographical information. Instead, she gives funny and barely detectable lectures.

In her fall-semester stop at the Algonquin's Oak Room (through October 10), she's expatiating on Ira Gershwin and younger brother George, who would have been 100 this Saturday. Not that the program, "The Memory of All That," is abstruse graduate-course material. Haran limits it to Gershwin 101, noting in her description of the remarkable George that he was "so swarthy his five o'clock shadow was four o'clock shadow." She explains, as she puts down the mike and sings "The Man I Love" atop a piano, that the song had been cut from three musicals before Helen Morgan popularized it, atop a piano. Moving the mike stand aside for "I'd Rather Charleston" (which she dances), she offers a few paragraphs on Adele Astaire, who introduced the song and who, Haran reminds the audience, was as delectable a Gershwin interpreter as brother Fred. Haran gives a rundown of the musicians in the Girl Crazy orchestra pit--Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey, among them--before swinging into Ethel Merman's "victim-y" number, "Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!" (What Haran could do but doesn't is analyze why, as a generally reflective man, lyricist Ira so often espoused the "Who Cares?" attitude.)

Haran doesn't confine instruction to her comments, but works it into the music as well, wisely relying on her accompanist and collaborator, Richard Rodney Bennett, who knows the Gershwin piano rolls and, where possible, plays what Gershwin himself played. There's also plenty to be learned about the Gershwins' staying power--their timeliness and timelessness--in the medley of "Sweet and Low-down," "Fascinating Rhythm," and "Fidgety Feet." 'S wizardry. --David Finkle

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