You don’t have to be depressing to be deep. The upside-down notion that happy, energetic music may be more profound than Mahleresque harmonic gloom is suggested by a scene from Walter Rimler’s 2009 biography, “George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait (Music in American Life),” quoted by the piano man Mark Nadler in “Gershwin ... Here to Stay,” the wonderfully buoyant tribute he is performing with K T Sullivan at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel.
When Gershwin’s friend Kay Swift observed him playing “dark, doom-laden chords” and asked him what he was composing, he said: “Oh, nothing. I was just working off some of the dreary music that lies near the top of a composer’s mind. Then I’ll dig down to the happiness stuff, with any luck.”
A similar belief in joy as the artistic mother lode in popular music drives the show, in which Mr. Nadler and Ms. Sullivan are joined by the Chicago jazz pianist Jon Weber, whose feathery touch on the keyboard balances Mr. Nadler’s crunching percussiveness. A high point on Thursday night was their furiously propulsive four-handed reduction of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, embellished with some physical clowning.
Immediately after, Ms. Sullivan slipped into a comic vamp mode and sidled to the piano to sing “Sam and Delilah” in a campy dialect and tug playfully at Mr. Weber’s ponytail.
A decade ago Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Nadler performed another, more conventional (and uneven) Gershwin tribute, “American Rhapsody,” that ran off Broadway for nine months. In the 10 years since, they have grown exponentially in confidence and mutual understanding. The show’s astute musical pairings include “Who Cares?” with “They All Laughed”; “Sweet and Lowdown” with “Shall We Dance?”; and “’S Wonderful” wound around excerpts from “Rhapsody in Blue.” Their rendition of “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” the Gershwin ode to delirious, nonplatonic kissing, is one of the few I’ve heard that emphasizes what the song is really about.
Mr. Nadler’s exegesis on how the internal rhythms and syntax of the chorus of “Embraceable You” express an image in the verse of the heart skipping a beat, is another example of the show’s microscopic focus. Only once, in a climactic “I Got Rhythm,” did Mr. Nadler allow his hammy impulses to run amok.