By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
There’s not much that’s more disheartening than listening to Frank Sinatra crooning Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” — “Heaven holds a place for those who pray, hey hey hey, whoa whoa whoa . . .” It’s all off, as though Sinatra is out in a twilight zone between the Count Basie/Duke Ellington era, which set the world to dancing around World War II and which propelled Sinatra to stardom with sexy, saxy big-band arrangements, and that of the erudite, laconic ’60s-’70s pop folksters — a conga line of lamentation extending from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen, with the Vietnam War plonked right in the middle.
Without belittling Sinatra’s attempt at “crossover,” it’s easier to cross backward than to cross forward. For example, it’s easier for contemporary Sting to pull off a ditty from a Weimar cabaret or for Annie Lennox to croon “Keep Young and Beautiful,” with all its ragtime embellishments, than it is for a vintage Sinatra (great as he was) to inhabit a song by Paul Simon.
Among the many beauties of Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart’s spanking new musical, Like Jazz, at the Mark Taper Forum (with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), is the purity of its attempt to examine the popular music of a generation that came of age during and after World War II — and nothing more. No attempt to dramatize the entire history of jazz, thank you very much. And no pandering: no bogus, superficial attempts, like in Swing!,to mythologize an era by giving it the fake sheen of a TV commercial for AT&T.
Like Jazzstarts and ends with the music, which is its central and relentless passion. Everything else follows — Judith Dolan’s mostly street-style costumes, the gothic arches looming behind D. Martyn Bookwalter’s bandstand set, sometimes rimmed in neon light, other times painted in the leafy textures or the historical backdrops of Marc I. Rosenthal’s projections.
It’s easier to describe Like Jazzby amplifying what it’s not: It’s not, like Mama Mia!, a recapitulation of already existing songs from an era, with a mocking scenario thrown in to string together the mélange. Coleman’s music and the Bergmans’ lyrics (sometimes laced in saucy double-entendres) are entirely new, though in a singular jazz style prevalent in this country from the mid-’30s through the early big-band ’50s. No John Coltrane here. Not even Dave Brubeck.
It’s not, like Dinah Wasor Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill(currently playing at the Fountain Theater), a biographical musical. In fact, it adheres more to a song-sketch or cabaret format than to anything with a plot. Nor is it a mere concert — despite the onstage band, heavy on the horn and sax sections, and an ensemble of 16 actor-singer-dancers, headed by Patti Austin, Lillias White and Harry Groener, who narrates in the black garb of a late-’40s hepcat.
Gelbart’s dialogue has Groener riffing on what the music means — “a vamp is like foreplay,” a trumpet solo is an “inventory of shattered expectations.” These romantic-poetical meditations on style and tempo frame Coleman’s 18 songs and provide a delicate unity.
Gravel-voiced trumpeter Jack Sheldon plops out from the band like a sweet dumpling to sing the comic “Don’t Touch My Horn” — a glint in his eye as he croons, “Don’t lay a finger on my instrument.” The glorious, crop-haired White oozes sensuality in “He Was Cool,” about the sax appeal of that particular instrument, played here by Peter Christlieb — as dancer Carlton Wilborn writhes to Patricia Birch’s erotic musical staging and choreography.
Though wobbling sharp in the torch song “Biography” (the life saga of a trumpeter) on press night, headliner Austin was beyond reproach in ballads such as “Being Without You” — a duet with charismatic Cleavant Derricks, and in the playful “Scattitude,” in which she reincarnates Ella Fitzgerald and her “scat” technique — bringing the human voice as close as it can get to replicating a musical instrument by replacing meaningful lyrics with gibberish.
One of the production’s few missteps is the inclusion of “The Double Life of Billie T” — a biography of Dorothy Lucille Tipton, who masqueraded as a man in order to sustain a career in jazz. Though hardly an egregious sore thumb, the song plays by a different set of rules from the rest of the cabaret: In a musical that’s more about music than character, its photo-album realism scrapes against the play’s ephemeral essence.
Around the time Khrushchev slammed his shoe on the table across from John F. Kennedy in an attempt to intimidate the new American president, my father-in-law walked five miles every day to work — to Moscow’s Theater of Musicals, where he conducted a jazz band in the American style — and provided arrangements for his orchestra. It was a project funded by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, whose agents would occasionally visit him and suggest that his orchestra was not sufficiently “Russian” — meaning that it contained too many Jewish musicians. (He politely ignored the reproaches.) Today, my father-in-law never leaves his tiny bedroom, where he sits, or lies, in a cot, paralyzed from the waist down — among the infirmities of age and a mysterious, chronic ailment that parallels Russia’s paralysis and decline as a world power. He speaks not a word of English, but his ruminations are peppered with a few American names that remain beacons of uplift from the icy winters of his youth, and from the memory of Joseph Stalin taking away his own father in the middle of the night: “Ellington, Fitzgerald, Basie, Sinatra.”
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