The Jazz Messenger
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
August 11, 2007
The New York International Fringe Festival is so chock-full of irreverent comedies and parodic musicals that dramas, especially historical dramas, can sometimes seem hard to come by. And so I was happily surprised to find in the list of FringeNYC shows the World War II drama The Jazz Messenger by Eric K. Daniels. How sad I was when this ambitious play turned out to be so disappointing.
The eponymous hero of the play is Terry Clayton, an African American jazz trumpeter living in Vichy France, who is secretly captured by the newly-arrived German officer, Major Kohn. Turns out, the Major is head-over-heels for the French jazz singer, Avril, who also happens to be Terry's girlfriend. Hoping to woo Avril with music, Major Kohn forces Terry to help him write jazz tunes for her, never suspecting that Avril might recognize Terry's music and realize he is being held prisoner.
The play's tense setting and intriguing Cyrano de Bergerac-styled plot line potentially allow for drama aplenty. And thematically speaking, there is rich material to unearth here about what it meant to be a black American in Europe—versus in America—during WWII. (In one witty moment, when Terry is asked why he became a jazz musician, he responds, "It's the only colored history that gets recorded.")
But Daniels barely scratches that subject's surface, since no real conflicts arise from Terry's race and nationality. Written more like a screenplay than a play, the action jumps all over the place, also focusing on the family who live in the farmhouse that Kohn has taken over, and a French priest imprisoned with Terry and suffering from a broken leg. Director Michael Petranek cannot keep the stories from feeling convoluted or the frequent blackouts from feeling sluggish. The slow pace and intertwining plot lines remove all the heat, all the suspense from what could have been an interesting story.
Although many characters might feel superfluous, there are nice performances amongst the supporting cast. Omar Chagall as the injured priest is so earnest that I actually winced once when he shrieked from the pain in his leg. Rebecka Ray, as the displaced farm wife, may have a warm, rounded face, but she struts about the stage like a hardened soldier, proving an equal adversary to Major Kohn. And in her pleasantly understated portrayal of Avril, Ellen Haynes stands nobly erect whenever faced with danger, then croons loosely with a smoky voice. The live jazz combo that accompany her during her songs, and underscore a few scenes, are a talented quartet and a nice touch to the atmosphere (although there were a few times when the music was so loud that I couldn't hear the dialogue).
Sadly, Daniels—who is playwright and producer—has done himself a terrible disservice by also casting himself as Terry. Daniels has written a charismatic character, with a sardonic sense of humor and a plethora of fantastical anecdotes. But of the two components that Terry says form jazz, Daniels's portrayal focuses more on "suffering" than it does on "soul," as he whimpers and mopes unhappily through most scenes. Daniels lights up the most when he teaches Major Kohn how to drum out jazz beats, but overall he seems dreadfully miscast.
Not everyone knew their lines by the second performance, which only made me more aware of how slapdash The Jazz Messenger felt. I hope that FringeNYC will continue to seek out new dramas, even if this one missed the mark.