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A CurtainUp Review
The Jazz Singer by Elyse Sommer

Why resuscitate a story that's laden with enough schmaltz to send your cholesterol soaring? And if you do, how do you invest it with the aura of the singer who made the movie version famous, without the now totally unacceptable blackface persona that was part and parcel of that singer's identity?

If you're Richard Sabellico, the talented associate artistic director of the Jewish Repertory Theater, you keep enough of the schmaltzy plot-within-the-plot of Samson Raphaelson's play, but put the great songs associated with Al Jolson front and center. Instead of casting Jack Rabinowitz as a Jolson look and sound alike, you opt for an attractive young performer, Ric Ryder, with a big but unJolsian tenor voice and direct him to keep the signature Jolson gestures and movements. To create the feel of a full-bodied musical with limited resources (small orchestra, and an ensemble consisting of just the leading man and lady and two hoofers) you call on Christopher McGovern to give a sense of unity to the diverse songs and Thomas M. Beall to create a set that accommodates the varied locales.

For anyone familiar with the original 1927 movie, as famous for being the first talkie as for its star (Jolson), Sabellico's blend of Raphaelson's play and the movie adds up to an entertaining two and a half hours of nostalgia with the schmaltz de-fatted but not eliminated. (the Cantor to whom jazz is an affront still declares "I haf no son!"). The songs and orchestrations are terrific. Ryder, gives his star turn everything he's got even if the splayed hands and white gloves without the original black face at times seem like vaudeville style Bob Fosse routines and mavens of cantorial singing may find his Kol Nidre a bit short on authenticity. At the end Ryder even keeps the more than willing audience in their seats for a brief and distinctly Jolsian "You Aint Heard Nothing Yet" sing-along. Beth Leavel is perfect as Mary Dale, a jaded singer-dancer who helps Jack towards his big break on Broadway. (In the movie she was a fresh young thing, helped to get her first break by Jack, and then repaying the favor -- but Sabellico's revision here as throughout work well). The show's two-man song and tap dance chorus, Jimmy Peters and Seth Swoboda, effectively conveys the feel of a full scale ensemble.

The pro-temple and anti-jazz contingent -- Mama and Papa (Evalyn Baron and James Murtaugh), the family friend Yudelson (Reuben Schaefer) -- have a harder time escaping the constraints of their stereotypical roles. Still, the Jewish Rep's core audience is unlikely to complain about the saccharine and predictable story and characters that frame this feast of terrific as ever songs like "I'm Sitting On Top of the World," "April Showers," Swanee" "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," and "You Made Me Love You."

A comment at from woman calling herself Surfin'Granny pertaining to the Al Jolson biographical film Jolson Sings Again pretty much sums up the exit mood at the performance I attended: "Wow! the music is wonderful! I love this show. . . the old songs and the old way of making shows. . ."

Postscript for trivia fans: Since Al Jolson was himself a cantor's son, many people thought the movie based on Raphaelson's play was his own story. This was not the case. The Broadway version of the play starred George Jessel who was offered but refused the part for the movie; nor was the vitaphone movie a musical. The five songs it did contain were not from Jolson's oeuvre. as did the above mentioned Jolson film biography which popular enough to seed a sequel (Jolson Sings Again). On the other hand two movie remakes of The Jazz Singer, one starring Danny Thomas, fared less well.

Book by Richard Sabellico
Based on the play The Jazz Singer by Samson Raphaelson
Directed by Richard Sabellico
Starring Ric Ryder
With: Evalyn Baron, Beth Leavel, James Murtaugh, Jimmy Peters, Reuben Schafer, Seth Swoboda, Raymond Thorne
Set Design: Thomas M. Beall
Lighting Design: Richard Latta
Costume Design: John Russell
Sound Design: Nevin D. Steinberg
Wigs and makeup : David Santana
Musical director arrangements & orchestrations: Christopher McGovern
Choreography: Kirby Ward Running time: 2 1/2 hours including one 15 minute intermission
Playhouse 91, 316 E. 91 St. (betw. 1st and York Avs), 831-2000
. Performances from 10/23/99; opening 10/31/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/31/99 performance

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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