‘Words by Ira Gershwin’ returns to North Coast Rep in Solana Beach

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as lyricist Ira Gershwin. Photo by Aaron Rumley

By Kristina Houck

Although Ira Gershwin died more than 30 years ago, his words still live on today. Still, it’s his little brother George who is most well-known.

As the composer of countless hits and numerous Broadway shows, it’s easy to see why George’s name lives on. But a song is not a song without lyrics, and George’s older brother wrote the lyrics for most of his songs.

Nearly two years after it made its world premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre, “Words by Ira Gershwin” is set to return to the Solana Beach theater to once again give the lesser-known brother a chance to be heard. The musical play is back for a limited run beginning Aug. 14.

“Most people are familiar with George and don’t know about Ira,” said David Ellenstein, North Coast Rep’s artistic director. “The insight into who he is is interesting, and the music is incredible.”

“Words by Ira Gershwin” was first unveiled to theatergoers in October 2012.

The musical play was written by Joe Vass, a Minnesota-based author and composer, who first created a tribute to George Gershwin in “The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer.” The hit musical debuted at the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.

When Vass brought “Words by Ira Gershwin” to a producer at Coconut Grove Playhouse, the producer contacted Ellenstein. Having worked with Ellenstein before, the producer suggested the musical play and North Coast Rep might be a perfect match.

“The reviews were good and the audiences liked it a lot,” said Ellenstein, who noted the original four-week run at North Coast Rep was extended another week. “Some people came back and saw it more than once.”

After debuting at North Coast Rep, Vass and Ellenstein took the play to the 380-seat Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., where it ran for five weeks at the end of 2013 with a different cast and band.

At the start of 2014, Ellenstein directed the play for four weeks at Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine. Once again, he worked with a new band, but this time Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who debuted as Ira Gershwin in Solana Beach, returned to the stage.

Mongiardo-Cooper will again portray Gershwin during the play’s second run at North Coast Rep.

“It’s kind of gone through changes,” Ellenstein said. “It’s been refined and altered in some ways — not drastically, but just little things to make it better.”

This isn’t the last time Ellenstein is set to direct the play. “Words by Ira Gershwin” will make its Los Angeles debut April 18-May 17, 2015 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Still, Ellenstein said he’s proud the hit debuted in Solana Beach.

“It’s exciting to watch things that we start move on so others can embrace them and do them their own way,” Ellenstein said. “It makes me feel like North Coast Rep has become the creator for world premieres, right here in Solana Beach.”

“Words by Ira Gershwin” will run Aug. 14-24 at North Coast Rep, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, in Solana Beach.

“It’s just a great experience,” Ellenstein said. “I’ve done it three times. This will be my fourth time, but I haven’t gotten tired of sitting in the rehearsal room, listening to the amazing music and great words. They’re just timeless songs.”

For information or to purchase tickets, call 858-481-1055 or visit