The Jazz Singer
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 18, 2011
The Jazz Singer is enormously famous as the first "talking picture": when Al Jolson as Jake Rabinovitz told his Momma "You ain't seen nothing yet," history was made.
I'm not sure how many people realize that the landmark 1927 film was based on a hit play, written by Samson Raphaelson and produced on Broadway in 1925 with George Jessel in the title role. You can experience this play for yourself, thanks to the folks at Metropolitan Playhouse, who are currently presenting The Jazz Singer as part of their 20th season. And you should: not only is this an instructive bit of theatrical/pop cultural history, it's a delightful, absorbing, and highly entertaining show.
The story revolves about Jack Robin, born Jake Rabinovitz, son of the cantor at the Orchard Street Synagogue (who in turn is but one in a long line of cantors). While Jake's father lives to sing to God, Jake lives simply to sing—jazz, of course; hence the play's title. Jake ran away from home five years ago, and in that intervening time he made good in the world of musical comedy. Now he's back in New York City, to star in a Broadway show for impressario Harry Lee. On the day of the opening, Jake gets word that his father has taken ill and his mother wishes him to take his place at the synagogue. (It's Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.) Will Jake abandon his career on the very night he is about to become a big star? Or will be turn his back on his family, faith, and heritage forever?
Raphaelson's plot is definitely on the melodramatic side, and a lot of the dialogue (especially comic exchanges between the jeweler Yudelson and just about anybody) feels straight out of Abie's Irish Rose. But the conflict at the play's center is robust and genuine and at the very heart of the American Story: The Jazz Singer pits tradition against progress and cultural identity against assimilation, and offers some surprising conclusions.
This production at Metropolitan is brilliantly realized by director Laura Livingston, who is unswervingly respectful of the material and canny in mining it for what's resonant in it 86 years after it was written. Transitions between scenes are particularly wonderful.
Livingston is abetted by Metropolitan's crackerjack design staff, headed by artistic director Alex Roe, who has created here a set that's as effective as it is miraculous, and also including costumer Sydney Fortner, lighting designer Christopher Weston, and sound designer Michael Hardart.
The cast is exemplary as well. In the title role is Justin Flagg, who shows us Jake's confidence and his insecurities; if he's not exactly Jolson when he sings or hoofs, well, who is?—he acquits himself splendidly. As his parents, Nona Pipes and Charles E. Gerber give heartfelt, poignant performances. Michael Durkin is, as always, invaluable, taking the role of Harry Lee, ostensibly the "heavy" in this scenario but here filled wtih heart and humor. Christine Bullen is terrific as Jake's love interest, Mary Dale; she has a great moment in the first half when she discovers that Jake is Jewish that really knocked me out. The supporting players are better than fine, especially Andrew Clateman as Yudelson and young Benjamin Slater as Cantor Rabinovitz's current protege Moey. And special mention must be made of Bob Greenberg, who is exuberant and full of energy as two entirely different characters.
Filled with music, humor, spirtuality, warmth, and genuine drama, The Jazz Singer ranks among the very best in New York theatre this autumn season. It's absolutely worth the trip to Alphabet City to check it out, and at a top ticket price of $22, it's as grand a ticket value as can be had here in the Big Apple.