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The Jazz Singer
In the city’s first professional production since the 1920’s, the Metropolitan Playhouse currently revives Raphaelson’s original stage play. Directed by Laura Livingston, it returns the focus back to the story and does not feature the familiar, sentimentalty infused jazz tunes of the era. While the pacing is quick, the actors manage to wring out all the juices of angst and turmoil. Raphaelson, who later in his career worked on films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, admitted that The Jazz Singer was "heartfelt, corny and dramatic. It hurtled me into a lifetime dedicated to never again being so shamelessly effective."
The father of the story, Cantor Rabinovitz (Charles E. Gerber) of New York’s Lower East Side, always expected his son, Jakie (Justin Flagg), to follow in his footsteps. However, Jakie, a promising singer, fell in love with the street sounds of jazz and was determined to sing on the stage. And so he ran away, changed his name to Jake Robins. Although Jakie/Jack wrote frequent letters to his mother (which she kept hidden), the Cantor would not even let the boy’s name be spoken in his house.
Jack met and fell in love with a wealthy young woman (Christine Bullen), not Jewish, also an aspiring performer. Just as he's celebrating his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a part in the Broadway show April Follies, he's called to his father’s bedside. The Cantor is dying and his last wish is to have his son sing “Kol Nidre” at Yom Kippur services. Jakie/Jack must choose between his big chance to become a star or return to his roots, his heritage and his family’s desperate wishes.
Raphaelson’s play was inspired by the vivacity of a popular Russian-Jewish American performer, Al Jolson, also a Cantor's son. Jolson was a passionate showman who used blackface which at the time was not politically incorrect but a respectful nod to the African-Americans who gave root to ragtime and early jazz. When the film came out, Jolson was the star and his trademark songs, with the famed line, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” were the key elements. In contrast, what little music there exists in the play is off-stage and also at the top of the play when the Cantor is giving lessons to a young boy in the choir.
Many in the hard-working cast of 11 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, take on double roles, including singing off-stage. As the fervent Jakie/Jack, lanky Justin Flagg seems all arms and legs. He is convincing as he fervently tries to explain the similarities of jazz music and the music of the synagogue. As the ailing Cantor, Gerber is outwardly restrained but when l he argues with his son his red face twists with rage. Nona Piper as Sara, Jakie’s mother is effective in her desperate pleas to Jakie to sing for Yom Kippur. Most impressive is Michael Durkin as April Follies’ producer, a man who displays both a hard business side and yet empathy for the decision his star is facing. Christine Bullen, however, lacks a persuasive spark as Jakie/Jack’s girlfriend and striving musical star, Mary Dale.
The clever sets by Alex Roe change from heavy European furniture for the living room to the theater setting. As actors and stagehands gather for April Follies, they smoothly move furniture, curtains, and props to transform the space, all the while whistling, calling to each other and vocalizing.
Like Harold Arlen (“Stormy Weather” and “Blues in the Night“), another famed songwriter and son of a Cantor strongly influenced by jazz, Samson Raphaelson believed, “You find the soul of a people in the songs they sing.” With imagination and fluidity, the Metropolitan Playhouse’s 20th season keeps the nostalgic aura of The Jazz Singer, , dusting off most of the excess, and delivering the viable core of a period theater piece.
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