The challenge of doing an all-Gershwin concert isn't so much in deciding what to do as it is deciding what not to do. At UCLA's Royce Hall Saturday night, Mel Torme, Leslie Uggams and Peter Nero rose to the occasion by making all of the right decisions during their 2 1/2-hour "Great Gershwin Concert."
Conceived and written by Torme, the concert was designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of George Gershwin's death. In the process, it managed to remind the nearly full house of the incredibly vast catalogue of music the late composer created--most of it in tandem with his brother Ira--during his 39 years.
It also managed to showcase the considerable talents of Uggams, whose controlled alto ranks her as one of the best singers in musical comedy; Nero, whose feel for Gershwin's piano music is glorious; and Torme, jazz music's renaissance man who sang, conducted, played the drums and acted the parts of emcee and Greek chorus, only after having scripted the show and written the bulk of the musical arrangements. Why he didn't dance or collect tickets at the gate remains a mystery.
Medleys, of course, were the mainstay of the show, with the three-member cast, supported by a 15-piece big band, working its way through a massive amount of material in a succinct and intelligent manner.
Nero performed admirably the 1924 classic "Rhapsody in Blue" in total, but had to present a "montage" of three of Gershwin's piano concerti, which he jokingly titled "Prelude to an American in F." Despite the brevity of his musical interpretations, a healthy taste was offered and the essence of Gershwin was neatly distilled.
The same held true for Uggams' stunningly beautiful medley of early Gershwin tunes, though she was far more effective with the few full-length ballad renditions that she offered. Her readings of "But Not for Me," "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now" were priceless.
Always the swinger, Torme scored with the up-tempo material. "Lady Be Good" was particularly great, and he used the tune effectively as an introduction to a series of tunes associated with the late Fred Astaire. It was a touching, heartfelt tribute to yet another American master.
Torme wisely chose to keep the show fun and, in a closing bit of wisecracking with Nero to Uggams' singing of "The Man I Love," even irreverent. Pedantic the show could have been; thankfully it was not.
The "Great Gershwin Concert" will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Robert D. Haugh Performing Arts Center at Citrus College in Glendora and at 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. Beyond that, what plans Torme has for this gem of a show are unknown, but, with a bit of tightening and a touch more slickness, it could well enjoy a long run in many a city.