Eva Knott 10:44 a.m., May 18
He's usually recognized, these days, as the three-letter answer to a crossword entry: "George's brother" - Ira Gershwin.
George Gershwin wrote the music first. Then older brother Ira wrote the lyrics. On Tin Pan Alley, Ira became known as the "Jeweler," because he could write precise, catchy, moving lyrics for music that often seemed to defy words (what Ira did for "Fascinatin' Rhythm" equals his brother's genius).
Here's Ira's "I Can't Get Started": "I've flown around the world in a plane. I've settled revolutions in Spain. The North Pole I have charted, but I can't get Started with you."
I've always been tempted to insert, for line three, "The Red Sea I have parted," but Ira, being a laser-eyed critic, would not have approved, since it breaks up the trio of feats of his era.
Ira "Izzy" Gershwin wrote not only for George (who died at age 38), he collaborated with many masters of the Great American Songbook, among them Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, and Vernon Duke.
In Words by... - world premiering at the North Coast Rep. - Ira's the opposite of his extroverted brother. Ira's modest, contented. He feels no need to assert his place in the pantheon (though he does admit "we set the standards," even here he includes others). He's also a mite embarrassed to be talking about himself in public, which he suddenly realizes late in the long second act.
Joseph Vass's script takes a mostly chronological look back. Some descriptions of how Ira worked are vivid - and borrowed from his excellent 1959 book Lyrics on Several Occasions. And the self-deprecating characterization rings true, though it tones the potential for drama way down.
The show's a musical "greatest hits" revue with occasional commentary. It slides from song to song episodically, with no dramatic builds. The songs, of course, are wonderful. But the singers?
A famous photo shows Ira in a comfy chair, pipe in mouth, writing lyrics in longhand on a pad of paper. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper resembles the man in the photo, a lot, and soon convinces that his physical qualities and mindset are also akin. Mongiardo-Cooper sings unaffectedly, his hands at his sides, and feels the meaning of a song. This is a lyricist calling quiet attention to his words as well as the music.
Two other performers, called the Crooner (Andrew Ableson) and the Chanteuse (Meghan Andrews) try hard to sell their many songs. They raise their hands and shake their heads as if imitating a generic model. They are as much "watch me" as "listen" and don't seem to care about the lyrics. Each is, at best, marginally competent, though he comes off as cold and she needs a better breathing technique.
The keynote to David Ellenstein's direction appears to be "understatement." Even with a tight back-up quartet (and deft solos by guitarist Bob Boss), even the punched up songs don't rise that high. Only Mongiardo-Cooper captures what Ira calls the "craft, meaning, and beauty" of the man and his work.