J.A.P. Chronicles, the Musical
nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
May 3, 2006
Taking on stereotypes is a complicated business, whether the goal is to disprove them, to reclaim them as a source of identity and power, or to fulfill some other, less specific purpose. From the antics of Jewtopia to Judy Gold’s moving and hilarious 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, the current season has offered a variety of opportunities to watch Jewish performers tackling, exploiting, or reveling in their stereotypes in one way or another. But the addition of Isabel Rose’s J.A.P. Chronicles, the Musical (based on her novel of the same name), where the intent seems to be reclamation, contributes little meaningful to the exploration of Jewish-American experience—or to entertainment.
Rose rechristens the all-too-familiar caricatures that populate her world “Jewish American Powerhouses” (a slogan that handily greets audience members on ample merchandise in the Perry Street Theater’s tiny lobby) as opposed to the more typical and more derogatory “princesses.” But as she sets about the task of showing that a sense of entitlement—not to mention wanting and having it all—isn’t necessarily a bad thing, this excruciating vanity production completely undermines her already tenuous message. Writer / composer / lyricist / star-of-all-six-roles Rose wants and has and does it all in this 90-minute mess; she doesn’t deserve it, and neither does the audience.
J.A.P. Chronicles concerns Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ali Cohen, hired by the camp where she spent pre-adolescent and adolescent summers to craft a documentary about the camp’s reunion. Cohen agrees, motivated primarily by a desire to confront the gaggle of girls who stuck a mascara brush somewhere that supposedly took away her childhood and her innocence (one of several obnoxious plot lines). Among Ali’s friends/tormentors—each of whom sings about herself—are an out-of-work actress; an Upper East Side daddy’s girl craving a husband; her sycophantic best friend, from the same block on the UES; and a nerdy, homeless performance artist. Oh, yes, and then there’s the ringleader, Wendy—a closeted housewife who supposedly keeps explicit lesbian porn of the big-boobs-blonde variety lying around the house, despite her husband and four sons. How do we know? Why, because Ali Cohen can only avenge her childhood Maybelline trauma (which, we are led to believe, just might be the source of her inability to commit to her boyfriend) by getting most of the girls to admit that they’re J.A.P.s, and by using secret video footage of Wendy to humiliate her via public outing. Delightful.
Rose is not without talent. She has an appealing quality about her, a decent singing voice, and a polished presence that even more seasoned actors might covet. She’s written a story with a few interesting curves, but the story isn’t the problem, and neither, really, are the characters. They’re thin (in more ways than one), but entertaining enough to keep us at least mildly engaged, especially under the guise of Rose’s occasionally charming characterizations and her switches between them. (It is unfortunate that the best-performed and best-received of these characters is Dafna, the most stereotypical Jewish American Princess, while the weakest and most irritating is Arden, the only self-proclaimed Jewish American Powerhouse in the entire work.)
All of that aside, J.A.P. Chronicles’ greatest failing lies in the ill-advised choice to perform it as a musical. Rose’s melodies are dull and derivative, drawing on every musical stereotype possible, from a klezmer-style Jewish tune to a country-twanged ditty for the work’s one “Southern” character (she’s from Kentucky, though she sounds like she’s from Texas) to a Latin-flavored song about Florida. And if that weren’t bad enough—and, believe me, it is—J.A.P. Chronicles contains what might be the most insipid lyrics ever heard in a theatre, bad to the point of being distracting for the audience. It becomes impossible to pay attention to the plot when bombarded with rhymes like “my counselor” and “I want to mount her,” and lyrics like “I hate my dress / I hate my mom / I wish that she would move to Guam.” The show is chock-full of comparable clunkers, all embedded within a painfully repetitive rhyme scheme that any Dr. Seuss fan would recognize as amateurish.
It’s a shanda (shame) to watch a skilled performer squander talent in one arena in exchange for believing that she can do everything equally well all by herself. J.A.P Chronicles manages to remind audiences of the importance of collaboration as a cornerstone of theatre—but not in a good way. Perhaps, though, that’s the price of wanting and having it all.