For the makers of modern musicals, George and Ira Gershwin must be profoundly irritating. Popular and sophisticated, commercially successful and culturally respectable, those damn Gershwins seemed to have it all.
Presumably Mark Lamos and Mel Marvin, who are responsible for "The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm," felt the time had come to knock George and Ira off their pedestal.
They succeed admirably in making the brothers' songs sound as banal as anything being written for Broadway today.
The show is misleadingly billed as "a new musical." It is really a concert, stringing 26 songs together in no particular order.
Since there is no story, everything depends on the performance and presentation of the songs. With good singers like Darius de Haas, Adriane Lenox, Orfeh and Sara Ramirez in the young cast, the experience should at least be pleasant.
But even this modest expecation is sabotaged by Marvin's bizarre arrangements.
The essence of most Gershwin songs is subtlety. The melodies don't insist, they insinuate. The rhythms don't pound, they swing. The touch is always light.
Marvin, however, assaults the songs with every weapon that comes to hand. He fires disco and funk at them. He batters them with drumsticks and slashes them with electric guitars.
The singing, which should be cool and smooth, is made loud and brash. Marvin seems to trust the songs so little that every emotion must be underlined or shouted out.
The show is at least consistent, however, because Lamos's staging is little better.
The choreography, by David Marques, harks back to a "Live from Las Vegas" TV special from around 1974. The design is insipid.
And the direction is mostly as heavy-handed as the arrangements. Grace, wit and humor are repeatedly in short supply.
Even when Lamos tries something interesting, like using "Isn't it a Pity" for a lesbian flirtation, the effect is merely coy.
There are occasional exceptions. Adriane Lenox somehow escapes from the general clumsiness for a quiet, unfussy and superbly effective rendition of "Nice Work if You Can Get It."
A comic number like "Just Another Rhumba," in which the Gershwins were not trying to be subtle, emerges unscathed and allows Sara Ramirez's talent to shine.
Which is more than can be said for the Gershwins. George and Ira may have thought of their genius that "They Can't Take That Away From Me."
But if so, they reckoned without Mel Marvin and Mark Lamos.
You know those endless numbers on the Oscar telecasts where a bunch of dancer-singers, recapping the year's movies, do the lives of, say, Gandhi, Lenin, Sitting Bull and Amelia Earhart in one uninterrupted stretch? You can get a slice of pizza or hit the bathroom or just watch in stupefaction. The last is the only option available at "The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm," a bookless revue in which a cast of nine young performers sing and dance some 28 tunes from the George and Ira Gershwin catalog.
The only fascinating thing here is how many ways director Mark Lamos and choreographer David Marques find to get these masterful and moving tunes wrong. The overall goal seems to be to dumb down the Gershwins and render them accessible to patrons of MTV, Madonna, "Footloose" and "The Life." It's like "George and Ira Go to Studio 54" - and the relentless trashing is done without humor or wit.
A lot of the early settings seem to be the mean streets of Bob Fosse. In "I've Got a Crush on You," a fancy woman (the talented Sara Ramirez) in spangles cruises an open-shirted stud; she's interrupted by a man (Darius de Haas) urging, "Lady, Be Good!" Hookers reminisce to the tunes of "Cousin in Milwaukee" and "The Lorelei." "The Man I Love" is belted by a dame in a fur collar to a guy in a black trench coat. "Love Is Here to Stay" is danced by Michael Berresse (who can actually dance) to wholly undistinguished nightclub movements. Check out the real thing at "Chicago" or "Cabaret" or, yes, "Fosse."
"Inclusive" is this show's middle name. "Isn't It a Pity" is done as lesbian torch song from a lady wearing boots and pants to a silent lady in one of those spangled dresses so dear to this production - a potentially piquant concept ploddingly executed. There are timidly male-gay flavorings to the stagings of "Embraceable You" and "Who Cares?" "I Got Rhythm" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" are done with heavy-footed obviousness; what was wit in the Gershwins is dullness here.
"Nice Work If You Can Get It" is turned by Adriane Lenox into a kind of Lena Horne pained torcher. A second later, Patrick Wilson (who can be a fine singer) twists "But Not for Me" into a Pearl Jam rock wail; he goes into Eddie Vedder-like anguished contortions. In general, though, the performers run to the opposite vice: they smile though their songs like Miss America contestants.
There are one or two bright spots. "Just Another Rhumba," done as a duet between a shrink and a patient, works as an old- fashioned comic turn; Patrick Wilson makes "How Long Has This Been Going On" simple and touching.
At the finale, the model has become "A Chorus Line." All in white on black stools, the nine performers softly and powerfully render "They Can't Take That Way from Me" as an elegy for (unspecified) losses. Leave it to this production to spoil this fragile moment; right away "Hang on to Me" pounds in the melancholy with the subtlety of a migraine.
Just typing up those Gershwin titles is a joy. To see them treated as they are here, for the most part, is a shame.
Clothes may make the man, but they surely shouldn't make the musical. Yet what lingers in the memory about ''The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm'' is not the way the cast members treat the old material; it's the way they wear the new material.
The revue, which opened last night at the Longacre Theater, consists of 27 tunes by George and Ira Gershwin -- among them standards like ''Embraceable You,'' ''Nice Work If You Can Get It'' and ''Someone to Watch Over Me'' -- performed in a jukebox revolving-song format by an eager cast of 10. This could have been a suave showcase for up-and-comers, a kind of ''New Faces of 1999.'' But as conceived by the director Mark Lamos and the musical arranger Mel Marvin, the lackluster production wastes talented young dancers and singers like Michael Berresse, Darius de Haas, Adriane Lenox and Patrick Wilson. Instead of warm echoes of the New Faces series on Broadway, you get tinny and sweaty reminders of television's ''Star Search.''
Mr. Lamos, who first staged ''Fascinating Rhythm'' two years ago in Hartford, where he was the longtime artistic director of Hartford Stage, never achieves the brooding, sultry pop-and-soul updating of the Gershwins' ebulliently romantic song book that he apparently has in mind. There is a pushiness in the effort to be chic, glamorous and sexy that undercuts the Gershwin style; glistening abs and tight T-shirts are false fashion statements in the more sophisticated universe the Gershwins evoked. It's one thing to turn ''Isn't It a Pity?'' into a lesbian duet, and quite another to cheapen the song by ending it with one of the performers unzipping her top.
The 90-minute show is obsessed with getting actors in and out of clothes. It's almost as if the costume designer, Paul Tazewell, thought his job was to draw attention away from the music. For Woody Allen, Gershwin evokes dusk in Gramercy Park; for Mr. Lamos, it's an afternoon at the mall. The song stylings make much punier impressions than the Gap-style outfits in which they are rendered; you're likely to recall individual numbers by their color coding. Mr. de Haas sings ''Little Jazz Bird'' in yellow hat and shoes and purple jacket; Ms. Lenox is in a silver skintight bodysuit with a pink fake-fur collar for ''My Cousin in Milwaukee'' and for ''I Love to Rhyme,'' and the ensemble dons black suits with exaggerated pinstripes that look like lane dividers on major highways. Somehow, even the oversize tap shoes used in ''I Got Rhythm'' make the dancers look klutzy. And on and on.
Michael Yeargan's unappealing set, resembling something you see on televised award shows, reinforces the notion that this is all a mock fashion shoot. Its main feature is a wall that closes like the shutter on a camera.
The songs are almost all well known, drawn from the Gershwins' Broadway shows, including ''Lady Be Good'' (1924), ''Strike Up the Band'' (1927) and ''Girl Crazy'' (1930), and from the 1930's movies they wrote for, like ''Shall We Dance?'' and ''The Goldwyn Follies.'' Some numbers seem wholly reimagined -- ''Clap Yo' Hands,'' from the 1926 musical ''Oh, Kay!'' is sung to a 60's rock-and-roll beat by the single-named performer Orfeh -- while others are given fairly traditional renditions, among them a tepid ''Let's Call the Whole Thing Off'' by Orfeh and Mr. de Haas.
Invariably, what works is what isn't tampered with. Mr. Wilson, with a big, embracing power, does well by ''But Not for Me'' and ''How Long Has This Been Going On?,'' and a quintet's straightforward ''Someone to Watch Over Me,'' allowed to breathe, is lovely in its simplicity. These, however, are infrequent oases. Most songs come and go in a forgettable roundel, which is something of an accomplishment given the breathtaking assault of the Gershwins' hit parade.
With their glazed smiles, the performers, unfortunately, develop no rapport with the audience or one another. Having seen many of them excel in other surroundings, it's hard to hold them accountable.
Fascinating it most assuredly is not, unless you're the kind that ogles car accidents. A strained and wholly unnecessary attempt to prove that the songs of dear old George and Ira are still young, fun and sexy, sexy, sexy, "The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm" might well have been called "Smokey George and Ira's Cafe." But boomers aren't likely to thrill to its desperately funkified arrangements of classic tunes, and Gershwin lovers will be aghast. Consequently the show doesn't have a prayer, even in this weak Broadway musical season.
In both its design and overall conception, the revue, directed by Mark Lamos, recalls various variety shows from the '70s, from "Sonny and Cher" to, heaven help us, "Solid Gold." Michael Yeargan's set design, featuring sliding panels that frame the performers in various geometric arrangements, might charitably be called minimalist. Uncharitably: cheesy. Peggy Eisenhauer's generally sharp lighting features lots of hot colors, as do Paul Tazewell's generally vulgar costumes, a compendium of the glittery, the stretchy, the shiny and the clingy (and some of the performers should not be sporting the clingy).
But the show's visual deficiencies would easily be forgiven if its musical achievements were accomplished. Unfortunately, here, too, a lack of taste prevails. Certainly the Gershwins' wealth of music is amply represented: In an intermissionless hour and a half (which feels a lot longer), the show's dozen performers race through 27 songs.
But the subtle charms of all too many of them are squandered by self-conscious attempts to dress them up in contemporary musical styles. Occasionally this is successful, as in Paul J. Ascenzo's smoothly rolling R&B arrangement of "Lady Be Good," performed by Darius de Haas. More often, it's not. The greatest damage is done to Ira's lyrics, which are lost in the music mix and drained of wit by the often overblown performances.
Most disastrous is a lugubrious version of the peerless, winsome "But Not for Me," which is here turned into a power ballad firmly in the Michael Bolton vein. Patrick Wilson, who has the misfortune of singing the song, even begins to look like Bolton by the tune's finish (it hasn't been a happy season for this talented, handsome performer: he also starred in "Bright Lights, Big City").
Lamos' Vegasy staging often features an aggressively sexuality that is antithetical to the mood and style of the songs; smoldering looks between Sara Ramirez and Michael Berresse destroy the romance of "I've Got a Crush on You." Choreographer David Marques' rote work is mere glosses on various styles: Fosse-esque jazz and tap and Broadway musical ballet (the athletic Berresse ably performs most of the dancing duties).
Overall, the performers, many of whom boast strong vocal resources, seem to believe that volume and earnestness are the keys to performing Gershwin, when it's style that matters most --- a more offhand, sophisticated touch best brings out all their rich delights. Sara Ramirez has a beautiful, smoky voice, but her torchy, "The Man I Love" ignores the wry irony that infuses Ira's lyrics. Even the few who score successes do so at the cost of subtlety. Adriane Lenox, so delightful in "Dinah Was," pulls off some ripe comedy in "The Half of It Dearie, Blues," but it's in a broad vein that palls by the song's end.
A mild stir has been kicked up about Lamos' lesbian staging of "Isn't It a Pity." There are also some homoerotic and homopolitical elements in "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "Who Cares?" --- but who cares? It's not the novelty of the interpretations but an overall lack of elegance and artistry that makes this unfortunate revue such a, well, pity.