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When composer George Gershwin died unexpectedly in 1937, 41-year-old Ira Gershwin was left without his brother and principal collaborator. Though he did not write a lyric for the next three years, the elder Gershwin did resume his career, which lasted four more decades, until his death in 1983.
It’s this period that film and theater critic Rex Reed explores in “The Man That Got Away,” a concert of the work of Ira after George, with more than two dozen songs including hits such as “My Ship” and “Long Ago and Far Away” nestled among less well-known tunes.
The show, onstage this weekend at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, features narration by Reed and performances by Gregory Harrison, Linda Purl, Sally Mayes and Kurt Reichenbach, with musical direction by Mike Renzi.
The loquacious Reed, known for his frequently acerbic film writing, is a rich interview full of theater stories that include myriad dropped names: “I love San Francisco. I was there when Angela did ‘Mame’ and stayed with her.” Angela would be Miss Lansbury to the rest of us.
This is a softer, gentler Reed than his reputation suggests. “I think it’s a bad rap to characterize me as bitchy. I’ve written just as many wonderful reviews celebrating people who have good taste as I have ones kicking the shins of people I think are overrated.”
“Everybody thinks I’m this tough movie critic, but my first love is music and the American Songbook,” says Reed, who has received rave notices for his onstage banter in the two years his show has intermittently toured the U.S.
Ira Gershwin made enormous contributions to that songbook. His post-fraternal catalog includes collaborations with Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Arthur Schwartz, Vernon Duke and, perhaps most famously, with Harold Arlen, for the score to the 1954 film “A Star is Born,” starring Judy Garland and James Mason.
“People do Gershwin shows,” Reed says, “and it’s a lot of George, so they figure they’ve done Ira. I met their sister Frances — Frankie, she was called — and I told her about this idea and she said, ‘Thank God! People are always honoring George. It’s high time someone paid attention to Ira. He’s the unsung hero of the family.’”
That said, Reed hints that it won’t be an entirely George-free evening. “You won’t hear ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’” he says, “But we end with the last song they worked on together, which seems kind of fitting, don’t you think?”
IF YOU GO
The Man That Got Away
Where: Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $60 to $75
Contact: (415) 292-1233; www.jccsf.org/arts