It’s been a century since Ira and George Gershwin dominated the musical theater scene with their catchy music and beloved songs. But in 2021, their work still makes people sing and dance, which is why the Arizona Broadway Theatre is presenting an original musical, “Crazy for Gershwin,” from Friday, Feb. 26, to Sunday, March 21.
Written, directed and performed by Kurtis Overby, the associate artistic director for Peoria’s premiere dinner theater, was a dance captain for the national tour of the Gershwin show “Crazy for You.” He is passionate about telling their stories because he constantly hears the influence of their music, not just in musical theater history but in what is modern songwriting.
“If you listen to their music and their words, they really created what we continue to base everything on,” Overby said. “They are the foundation of what musical theater has become and probably will become in the future.”
“Crazy for Gershwin” celebrates the music of the two brothers in a musical revue format with a storyline tying everything together. Overby will perform with three others and a small band.
“We’re just kind of telling some of the stories and the background of these songs,” Overby said. “I couldn’t do a show without trying to bring some levity. I didn’t want it to be a boring dissertation on the Gershwins. I wanted to find certain unique things about them and their songs while focusing on the music.”
Composer George and his older brother, lyricist Ira, wrote more than a dozen Broadway shows before George’s early death at age 38. Their music includes such standards as “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” Some of their best-known musicals include “Porgy and Bess,” “An American in Paris” and “Crazy for You.”
“The music speaks for itself,” Overby said. “I don’t need to speak for the Gershwin music. We’re going to try to tell stories about the songs and the music themselves.”
Crazy for Gershwin
Their music has been an important part of Overby’s professional life. He loved the “Crazy for You” tour.
“Nine months of doing the same show, eight times a week can get a little monotonous, but I enjoyed every single moment,” Overby said.
After the tour, ABT’s artistic director, Cassandra Klaphake, contacted him and asked if he wanted to play Bobby, the show’s lead, in the ABT version.
“I said, are you kidding? Sure! I get to do it again,” Overby said. “To revisit their music is always exciting, because it is a dancer kind of thing. Even when we (ABT) did ‘American in Paris,’ which is a newer show, but all the Gershwin music you want spun in a different way, I was excited to do that as well.”
He directed and choreographed the ABT version of “American in Paris,” which laid the groundwork for this month’s show.
“It’s exciting because it is different every single time,” Overby said. “You can put their music into a storyline and it can be brand new and still make sense. Their music stands the test of time and always will. I get to put my own spin on their music, which is really exciting.”
One of the stories he tells is the origin of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” George Gershwin was at the piano trying to compose a dance number. He’d created this quick little piece and was playing it when his brother stopped him, demanding he slow it down. He did, but Ira wanted it even slower. George started to get irate when finally, he played it very slowly and Ira told him it was perfect. He took it and wrote a love song for his wife and it became the classic ballad.
“Crazy for Gershwin” was conceived, planned and written for COVID-19 times. Originally, the theater planned to do “Crazy for You” with 25-plus actors from around the nation.
The theater’s Cassandra Klaphake and Kiel Klaphake, along with Overby, brainstormed what they could do instead.
“Why not take this opportunity to write the show we want?” Overby asked. “We could showcase the music that people wanted to hear. We want this Gershwin thing to happen. It can’t be ‘Crazy for You,’ so let’s create our own thing.”
He created the show so rehearsals could be held via Zom with the musical director or in one-on-one meetings.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re following all the guidelines, making sure we’re doing the best thing to be safe. That’s the most important thing for us,” Overby said.
He also recognizes the pandemic has created a need for what they do.
“Everyone wants to escape in some way,” Overby said. “Our demographic at this point just wants to steal some sense of normalcy. The Gershwin music really does that. It allows you to escape from so many things for an hour and a half to two hours. You don’t have to think about anything but feeling good, feeling nostalgic, maybe laughing a few times.”
In a show, Overby will play the piano, sing and dance. He’s looking forward to performing for an audience.
“This isn’t coming to a play for a history lesson. It’s not. It’s really not,” Overby said. “It’s going to be a good time. Come and enjoy some Gershwin music, have some laughs, maybe you’ll cry, maybe something will touch you the way that music and theater touches us.”