By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: November 13, 2000
George Gershwin, like the Beatles, was a musical force of so many brilliant parts that by selectively sifting through his legacy, a musical evening could be built around any of several strands. Woody Allen has made Gershwin's airborne tunes synonymous with the glamour of Manhattan's skyline. Others have celebrated Gershwin as the distillation of Jazz Age ebullience, the inventor of a distinctively American classical music and a sharp political satirist (the operettas).
The latest Gershwin revue, ''American Rhapsody'' at the Triad Theater, has more frivolous aspirations. Effervescent but ungainly, it focuses on Gershwin zaniness, which, of course, had as much to do with Ira Gershwin's witty lyrics as with George's music. In its lighthearted giddiness, it looks back in spirit to ''My One and Only,'' Tommy Tune's fluffy 1983 Broadway Gershwin tribute. Near the end of this show, when its two stars, Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan, strut around the Triad's tiny stage in top hat, white tie and tails, one is reminded of Mr. Tune and Twiggy 17 years ago, doing their Fred and Ginger thing at the St. James Theater.
Although it makes some awkward passes at ''Porgy and Bess,'' this essentially bubbly show is shaped around the oddball personalities of its stars, both of whom are self-conscious show business throwbacks. Mr. Nadler, who sings, dances and plays piano (aggressively and well) is a madly extroverted contemporary vaudevillian whose artistic lineage embraces everyone from Al Jolson (in his ferocious singing) to Mr. Tune (in his goofy, long-legged hoofing). He is an entertainer who is all surface and proud of it.
Ms. Sullivan, who has built a thriving cabaret career on her stylized parody of a 1950's showgirl, is a walking dish of peaches and cream. With her swiveling gait, platinum hair and kewpie-doll eyes that she rarely stops batting, she is a self-conscious fusion of those classic not-so-dumb blondes, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday.
Because the performers' personas are highly stylized self-inventions adrift in their own private nostalgic universes, they don't try to ignite any serious romantic sparks, although they indulge in a bit of jokey flirting.
The show's most inspired moment comes in the middle of the second act, when the pair offer an insouciant pastiche of the 1937 movie musical ''Shall We Dance,'' the only Astaire-Rogers film to have had a Gershwin score. As the stars regale us with the twists and turns of a plot so ludicrous you end up loving it for the purity of its nonsense, its wonderful songs float by: ''(I've Got) Beginner's Luck,'' ''They All Laughed,'' ''Let's Call the Whole Thing Off,'' ''They Can't Take That Away From Me'' and ''Shall We Dance?''
''Shall We Dance'' is by far the most sparkling segment in a show, written and directed by Ruth Leon, that weaves together familiar snippets of biography (and the performers' autobiographies) with a kaleidoscope of mostly famous songs. Near the end of the first act, Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Nadler deliver an extended medley of fragments of Gershwin classics whose comic energy derives from silly word associations, such as having a line like ''Don't let him handle me with his hot hands'' (from ''I Loves You Porgy'') segue into ''Clap Yo' Hands.''