"Jazz Singer" @ Abrons Arts Center - New York City Article
"Jazz Singer" @ Abrons Arts Center Follow @nyccitiview
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street)
Through October 12
The creators of this work describe it both as an “exhumation” and an “interrogation” of the iconic 1927 film The Jazz Singer. The Jazz Singer’s place in history is mainly couched in technological terms: it was the first widely-successful use of pre-recorded sound in a major feature film, and was such a huge hit that it helped to usher in the new age of talking pictures. The new work, by Joshua William Gelb and Nehemiah Luckett, takes a deep dive into the iconic film, but is mainly concerned with its cultural ramifications - especially in terms of its depictions of Jewish and African-American identity. Their meditation on the work is, not surprisingly, highly focused on the use of blackface by the star, Al Jolson’s. However, it also pivots around what might be considered a surprising historical fact: that The Jazz Singer was a huge hit in Harlem in 1927, where, they tell us, it was projected without the soundtrack (the theater was not wired for sound) but that Jolson’s jazz songs were performed live by a blues singer from the deep south and the Jewish liturgical songs were also done live, by a cantor.
Even though the work is presented in a single 90-minute act, with no intermission, there are two distinct parts to it: the first, is extremely meta, like a more intellectual version of the 2008 Title of Show, a show about making a show. The three central actors, co-creators Nehemiah Luckett and Joshua William Gelb debate various means of approaching the film, while the third character, played by Cristina Pitter, continually raises the question “Why?” (And, as the creators obviously intended, she encourages the audience to do the same.)
The second half, however, is much more visceral, and more emotional - the three performers (aided enormously by a guest jazz musician, on Saturday, October Fifth it was the brilliant trumpeter Alphonso Horne) - not only act out scenes from the story, but they do so while in the middle of a projection of the film itself (as well as a radio adaptation from 20 years later), with Ms. Pitter as the mother and Mr. Luckett and Mr. Gelb switching off as “Jakie Rabinowitz” aka “Jack Robin,” the Jazz Singer himself. It’s during this second half that the three performers and three musicians make the whole thing work on multiple levels: in spite of all the intellectual and multimedia baggage, it’s still a compelling story, and we can now enjoy it without feeling guilty.
Directed by Joshua William Gelb
Composed and Music Directed by Nehemiah Luckett
Dramaturgy by Zhailon Levingston
Assistant Directed by Johnny Lloyd
Presented by Abrons Arts Center
Performed by Joshua William Gelb, Nehemiah Luckett, Cristina Pitter, Stanley Mathabane, and a different featured guest Jazz artist every performance.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)