Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 25, 2011

Nice work if you can get it

Performers get to devote an evening to two of their musical icons: George and Ira Gershwin

by Rebecca Wallace

There must be something in the water in Bay City, Mich. Something blue and rhapsodic.

Kevin Cole started perching on the piano bench there as a tot, and soon folks were remarking on his musical resemblance to George Gershwin. He's now been a working musician for 30-plus years, performing American standards and channeling the late great George.

Meanwhile, emerging dancer and vocalist Ryan VanDenBoom, fresh from New York University, is winning national dance competitions and often emulating the styles of illustrious past hoofers.

"He dances like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire," Cole said. "Here's a new generation and he just has it."

VanDenBoom also happens to hail from Bay City, Mich.

As a longtime admirer of the Gershwin brothers — both the lyricist Ira and the composer and pianist George — Cole has a repertoire heavy on their tunes. It includes both works for piano and orchestra, such as "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F," and familiar, enduring songs: "Love Is Here to Stay," "Fascinating Rhythm," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and many others.

Now Cole is striking up the band at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Dec. 3 with a new multimedia tribute show, "Here to Stay: The Gershwin Concert Experience." VanDenBoom will join him to sing and tap, together with country and soul singer-songwriter Lari White. Her credits include the 1994 solo country album "Wishes," which went gold. She is also an actress who appeared on Broadway in 2006 in the Johnny Cash jukebox musical "Ring of Fire."

Cole is the music director of "Here to Stay," which premiered in July with the Minnesota Orchestra. The Stanford Lively Arts performance will be the premiere of the non-symphonic version. Then the show will travel on, sometimes with different performers joining Cole. Gigs include concerts with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony.

"Here to Stay" has Cole at the helm telling stories about the Gershwins in between songs and dances. Photos, video clips and home movies of the brothers add dimension and intimacy.

"One of the things that bothered me as a kid learning about composers was that they always seemed so untouchable. They didn't seem human," Cole said in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. "It's nice to know a little back story about these people."

He added: "There will also be moments for each of us to tell the audience how we first heard Gershwin and how it touched us. George and Ira Gershwin ... they literally changed the path of my life."

That happened early. Cole had been studying piano for a few years when he saw the 1945 biopic movie "Rhapsody in Blue" at the age of 7. "The music hit me so hard," he said.

Soon Cole was seeking out any books he could find about the Gershwins. A librarian gave him a biography written by Edward Jablonski — also from Bay City. The book made an impression. When Cole was 15, he traveled to Manhattan and looked up the Jablonskis.

"He and his wife had me over for supper, and I played a little Gershwin medley," he said. Impressed, the Jablonskis kept inviting him back over the years. He'd stay there and play for them, and the Jablonskis would invite over the Gershwins' relatives and other people from their circle. The guests, Cole said, would cry. "They couldn't believe that anyone could make the piano sound like that. They thought it was gone."

Cole's musical path was set. Although he was classically trained, graduating from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, he felt a "symbiotic connection" with George Gershwin, who also blurred the lines between classical and pop music.

Cole has been working as a professional musician since high school: as a piano soloist with orchestras, as a singer and songwriter, as a music director and vocal arranger. He's played the Hollywood Bowl, the Royal Albert Hall, the Kennedy Center.

Maybe the best venue, though, was the Jablonskis' New York home, especially when they had guests.

On one particular visit, Cole was noodling around on the piano when Edward Jablonski called from the next room, "Play a Berlin medley." So Cole launched into five or six Irving Berlin tunes, and then Jablonski said casually, "Someone would like to talk to you."

In walked Irving Berlin.

"I think he was 93 or 94 at the time," Cole said of the iconic composer, who died in 1989 at the age of 101. "He couldn't have been nicer." The animated Berlin chatted with Cole and told him stories, but by far the most memorable thing he said was the first, Cole recalled: "Christ, kid, if I could have played like that, I wouldn't have become a songwriter."

Cole clearly prizes these personal connections. Gershwin relatives are favorites, including Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of George and Ira, and a trustee of the family trusts. He's the one who initially approached Cole about creating "Here to Stay."

Cole has also met the renowned theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who told him, "Kevin, it's really great to hear my songs played with all the right chords."

Then there were those unexpected audience members — like Muhammad Ali, who was at a reception that Cole was playing in Louisville, Ky. Ali sat on a couch and listened for a while, then got into a conversation with the pianist, Cole recalled:

"Where'd you learn to play like that?" Ali asked.

"Bay City, Michigan," Cole said.

"You mean they got piano players like you in Bay City, Michigan?"

Ali requested the theme from the movie "Exodus," then asked if he could play something.

"He sat down and played some boogie-woogie riff with his left hand. Then he smiled and said, 'That's all I know how to play,'" Cole said. "I've been so blessed with little moments like that."

What: "Here to Stay: The Gershwin Concert Experience," with Kevin Cole, Ryan VanDenBoom and Lari White, presented by Stanford Lively Arts

Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3

Cost: Tickets are $22-$50, and $10 for Stanford students.

Info: Go to livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.

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