The play opens with the choir of a synagogue on a balcony of a very costly set, while the rest of the cast on the stage is dancing and singing something like jazz. This liturgical music mash is one of the best moments in the show, symbolizing the hero’s conflict and origins in the most interesting of musical moments. The contrast of the men wearing the traditional prayer shawls with the wild and sexy jazz costumes of the dancers below was a truly inspired start.Unfortunately the rest of the play did not live up to this promising moment. Some of the performers did deliver. Lisa Rubin has a wonderful voice and one hopes to see her in future production where she actually gets to act as well as sing. Fishel Golding was a convincing cantor and Judy Strauber was good as his wife and mother of the Jazz Singer. Nadia Verucci never disappoints and the stage belonged to her when she strutted on it. Stan Unger did do a creditable producer, but he was utterly upstaged by Chris Barillaro who was really terrific in the few moments he had as the tipsy assistant to Harry.
A play about a jazz singer has to have a terrific lead actor to carry it off. Elan Kunin was not such a one. The music was not particularly memorable and most of us know actual songs from the era which are much hotter. Kunin’s delivery was not outstanding and his acting weak. There was no one moment in the show when one could genuinely feel for him. The scenes between Jacob and his father did not have the intimacy which would have made Jacob’s abandonment meaningful or poignant. In fact, Lisa Rubin’s performance as Miriam when she goes to plead with Jacobin in his dressing room was the most moving in the story.
The sets were fantastic and John Denning does not disappoint. His work is impeccable and the rotating stage makes so much possible. James Lavoie designed some great period costumes. I do not know why there was a bag lady with a thoroughly contemporary cart in the first scene, but that was surely not his doing. The choreography was as good as the dancers, and Jim White got some great moments out of a basically amateur cast. The music though not memorable was serviceable, and the band was great.
The problem is that the writing was schmaltzy instead of moving and the characters did not grow or change. There is no real indication that Jacob is suffering or that his ultimate choice really costs him. It was difficult to believe his romance with Mary, even though I know that Nadia Verrucci gave her best. It might be better to go and see the movie again. The producers of the film may not have had the resources of the Segal Centre, but there was one unforgettably great performance.
The Jazz Singer plays at the Segal Theatre until June 27, 2010.