As "George Gershwin Alone" begins, a spotlight sits tightly on the face of Hershey Felder at the piano. The momentary resemblance between Felder and the great composer is quite striking. What Felder most has in common with Gershwin, however, is his stunning piano technique, especially in the brilliant solo version of "Rhapsody in Blue" that ends the 90-minute show. Whenever Felder plays the Steinway that sits center stage you sense what an accomplished musician he is, not only in his dazzling arrangements of Gershwin but also in the work of Gershwin's subtler contemporary Maurice Ravel. Much of the evening is devoted to Felder as Gershwin narrating the key events of his own life (even his sudden death at 38). Such narrations invariably are tricky. Like most one-person shows about celebrities, "Gershwin Alone" does not solve the basic problem of conveying vital information in the voice of the character rather than in a standard "and then I wrote" way. Felder clearly has relied on Joan Peyser's fascinating biography of Gershwin, "The Memory of All That," but he sometimes embellishes in a way that makes what he has to say less credible. His description of the famous concert in which "Rhapsody in Blue" was first played, for example, has a Hollywood aura to it. So does an anecdote in which Gershwin's difficult mother, Rose, troops the cast of "Porgy and Bess" down to Orchard St. to costume them. There is a parenthetical reference to this in Peyser's book, but it seems unlikely that as fastidious a director as Rouben Mamoulian would allow the composer's mother to override his costume designer. The best moments apart from the purely musical ones are those in which Felder, obviously an astute musician, analyzes some of the unusual turns Gershwin took in his melodies. Felder adopts an odd singing voice, which makes him sound like a 78 rpm recording from the '20s. This may have historical veracity but it does not necessarily convey the charm of these wonderful songs. Yael Pardess' set in shades of gray establishes a mood of nostalgia. Director Joel Zwick does a canny job of moving Felder around in what could easily be a static production. During the dazzling "Rhapsody in Blue" all reservations are swept aside. "Gershwin Alone" ultimately succeeds on the basis of every show associated with him - the sheer genius of his music.
The novelist John O'Hara once wrote: "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."
Unfortunately, although the proposition sounds enticing, even entrancing, the name of the show that opened at the Helen Hayes Theater last night, "George Gershwin Alone," is really something of a misnomer.
For, despite O'Hara, it is not actually George Gershwin who is alone up there on the stage, but Hershey Felder.
Admittedly he is alone, apart from a few stray bits of furniture, some strayer slide projections and a Steinway piano - but the difference between George Gershwin alone and Hershey Felder alone is not inconsiderable.
Nor am I being facetious. The opportunity to hear Gershwin tell his own story, play some of his own tunes, and chat about his life and death would have been wonderful.
But Felder, with all the best will in the world, is not a particularly effective understudy. It doesn't perhaps matter that he is not a very good singer - after all Todd Duncan, Gershwin's original Porgy, described both the composer and his brother, Ira, as having "awful, rotten, bad voices."
It matters a little bit more that Felder is not quite such a good pianist as Gershwin - listen to the recently released CDs by Nonesuch Records of his playing recorded on piano rolls.
Though much of the time Felder - all in the personage of Gershwin, whom, incidentally, he does rather resemble - is giving us a little basic musicological information and career backchat.
In passing, he offers flimsy impersonations of Al Jolson and Ethel Merman, plays "Fascinating' Rhythm" an unfascinating number of times, and ends with an enthusiastic rendering of a truncated "Rhapsody in Blue" for solo piano.
His anecdotes will not come as anything particularly fresh to Gershwin admirers and some seem a little muddled.
For example, the rather good story that when Gershwin asked a famous Paris composer to give him lessons, that luminary, having elicited how much Gershwin earned, replied, "You should be giving me lessons," is here attributed to Ravel.
It doesn't really matter, but Gershwin's biographer, Edward Jablonski, says it was Stravinsky - and it certainly does sound more like the tart-tongued Russian than the shy, retiring Ravel.
So for 90 intermissionless minutes, Felder, all but dripping with self-confidence, tries to persuade us that he is George Gershwin, come again. He isn't.
By the way, anyone wanting a rattling good Gershwin show is warmly urged to take in KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler in "American Rhapsody" at the Triad Theater on West 72nd Street. It has much more spirit and no pretension.
George Gershwin was just 38 when he died of a brain tumor in 1937, having produced a prodigious legacy. ''George Gershwin Alone,'' Hershey Felder's stage biography, makes a great case for his subject as the American Mozart.
Mr. Felder, who performs solo from his own script, never invokes the comparison. But to be reminded of the sheer volume and variety of Gershwin's great work, from ''Rhapsody in Blue,'' ''An American in Paris'' and ''Porgy and Bess'' to more than 1,000 popular songs, many for the theater and the movies, makes your jaw hang loose. After Mr. Felder's renderings of snippets of many of Gershwin's greatest hits, you may leave the theater with some version of the feeling expressed by the singing satirist Tom Lehrer, who must have been 38 when he remarked, in amazement, ''When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.''
The show, which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday, could use a dose of Mr. Lehrer's humility. It takes the form of autobiography; Mr. Felder, who more than ably accompanies himself on the piano, assumes the role of Gershwin and tells the story in the first person. It's a narrative strategy that ends up burdening the play, largely because Mr. Felder is neither writer enough nor actor enough to give his subject living charm as well as lavish upon him posthumous worship.
A Canadian concert pianist and actor making his Broadway debut, Mr. Felder presents Gershwin, reasonably if sentimentally, as an unappreciated genius who was both self-absorbed and self-destructive. A child of immigrants from Russia who discovered music serendipitously on the streets of lower Manhattan, he was ''discovered'' by Al Jolson at a party in Harlem and was consumed by the pursuit of both genuine accomplishment and fame. A social gallivanter who never married, he saw his work disdained by classical music critics and minimized by Hollywood producers.
Nattily attired in a dark suit, hair slicked back to mimic Gershwin's high-toned appearance, Mr. Felder looks back with wistfulness, aching passion and great seriousness, if not with verbal grace or idiosyncrasy of character. Too frequently the narrative voice sounds suspiciously like the admiring author: '' 'Porgy and Bess' was enormous. It had some 700 pages of hand-written orchestral score. For the first time, a piece of this magnitude had been created by Americans, about Americans and for Americans.''
In any case, the fervor with which he speaks the script, plays the music and sings the lyrics (his voice grows a bit grating, especially in extended excerpts from ''Porgy and Bess'') is so unmistakable as to be the very point. By the end, the show has become something of a shrine, a work of reverence and gratitude. And when, to conclude, Mr. Felder seats himself at the Steinway grand at center stage, plays a furiously dramatic rendition of ''Rhapsody in Blue'' and then simply exits, the effect is that of a angry processional at a memorial service.
The set contributes to this sense of mourning. Designed by Yael Pardess, it's quite lovely. Ms. Pardess uses an old desk piled high with papers, a warped mirror inside an ornate frame, dusty show posters, a parallel pair of heavy, antique stage curtains and reproductions of two paintings by Gershwin himself to suggest the faded memory of the 1920's. And she places them against a backdrop of false walls that curve with both a mathematical elegance and a suggestion of paper -- perhaps a musical score -- curling with age. The atmosphere is part funeral home, part limbo.
There are, to be sure, many moments of levity in ''George Gershwin Alone''; amusing anecdotes are sprinkled through the script. George's father, for example, never quite mastered the titles of some of his son's songs; for him, ''Fascinating Rhythm'' was always ''Fashion on the River.'' A welcome wryness accompanies the occasion on which Gershwin endured the slight of having his song ''The Man I Love'' used as background in a radio commercial for a laxative. And Mr. Felder is at his most relaxed and most entertaining when he replicates the composer composing.
Opening the show seated at the piano and picking at the rising notes that open ''I Loves You, Porgy,'' Mr. Felder, in character, gives a simple and illuminating music lesson. Composing ''I Got Rhythm,'' George and his brother Ira (his frequent lyricist, of course) had difficulty fitting appropriate lyrics to the melody. Experimenting with rhyme schemes, they came up with dummy lyrics: ''Roly poly/Eating solely/Ravioli/ Better watch your diet or bust.''
One wishes that Mr. Felder had a slightly more distant perspective on his subject. There's an interesting comparison to be drawn between ''George Gershwin Alone'' and ''American Rhapsody,'' the Off Broadway cabaret-style revue that is also about Gershwin. Its performers, Mark Nadler and K T Sullivan, are cheeky appreciators rather than sincere impersonators, to notably more light-hearted effect.
The romantic calamity of Gershwin's life, for instance, he loved and lost Kay Swift, a pianist and composer who helped him notate the score of ''Porgy and Bess,'' is gravely magnified by Mr. Felder. But ''American Rhapsody'' prefers to relish and admire his legendary womanizing. It's a difference in attitude. Mr. Nadler and Ms. Sullivan treat Gershwin's life as one to be celebrated. Mr. Felder mourns his premature death as a tragedy.
The designation of "George Gershwin Alone" as "a play with music" is only half accurate. Of music there is much -- 10 or so of the composer's greatest songs as well as "Rhapsody in Blue" -- but this solo show written by and starring Hershey Felder is not so much a play as a nightclub act with extra helpings of between-song patter.
The distinction here is that Felder is actually personifying Gershwin, not just performing his music and chatting about him. But as it turns out, that's a fairly small distinction: The pronoun "I" is used, but Felder isn't really pretending to offer a full emotional portrait of Gershwin or represent the artist at a particular juncture in his life. Felder's informative, breezy writing is really just superficial biography disguised as autobiography.
In the production's somewhat synthetic conceit (where are we? what year is this? who is he talking to?), Felder sits at a Steinway at center stage and regales us with anecdotes about Gershwin's life and career. (Yael Pardess' sepia-toned set papers the walls with show posters and replications of two paintings done by the composer himself.)
He talks of his impoverished childhood as the son of Jewish immigrants; of his love of musical experimentation, beginning with the key change in "Swanee," one of his first big hits; of the gestation and disappointing critical reception of "Porgy and Bess"; of the subsequent move to Hollywood, where Gershwin died of a brain tumor at the tragically young age of 38.
Felder's primary career is as a concert pianist, but he's an old-fashioned all-around showbiz type, the kind of energetic, natural performer who shows no trace of self-consciousness onstage (of self-satisfaction more than a little, at a faux-humble curtain call that seems to cue a rhapsodic reception rather than respond to it). He bears some resemblance to Gershwin and sings his songs with fervent relish in the style of the period. His accomplished piano playing is more varied and sensitive than his singing, even if the "Rhapsody in Blue" at the reviewed performance was more showy than artful. Selections are strictly the greatest hits -- from "The Man I Love" to "Embraceable You" to "Summertime."
Even at Broadway's smallest theater, the show is not ideally housed. The raised stage accentuates the text's lecture-ish tone ("And then I wrote this one ..."). As a basic Gershwin primer, this is a modest and inoffensive evening, but it's hard to know who the audience is expected to be. Musical aficionados will find the material's Gershwin-for-beginners approach unilluminating and somewhat dull, but the show hardly seems likely to draw mainstream theatergoers. And how sad to reflect that Broadway audiences these days need an introduction to a man whose music once filled not just many of the district's theaters but the city itself.