The new musical version of The Jazz Singer, the 1925 non-musical play that inspired the famed "talkie" moving picture with Al Jolson, continues an extended run by Jewish Repertory Theatre to Nov. 21 at Playhouse 91 in Manhattan.
The newly-conceived staging by director Richard Sabellico opened Oct. 31, following previews that began Oct. 23. The first preview coincided with the 49th anniversary of the day Al Jolson, said to be the inspiration for the play, died in San Francisco in 1950. Although Jolson starred in the film version and his father was a cantor, the author and others denied it was Jolson's story.
"Jolson's father was a cantor and Jolson was a singing star," director Sabellico said, but that's where the similarities end.
Period songs have been interpolated into Samson Raphaelson's three-act drama, creating a new musical play, reworked by Sabellico, associate artistic director of JRT. Sabellico told Playbill On-Line the show is now in two acts and has been reconceived, with the blessing of those who own the rights to the play.
The classic play, whose Jolson film version was only partly "talkie" (the first full talking picture came later), concerns a jazz-struck young man named Jackie Rabinowitz who chooses a music career (changing his name to Jack Robin) and the lure of Broadway over his family traditions, going against the wishes of his Jewish cantor father.
"It's about tradition," Sabellico said. "The resolution is about coming to terms with your family and making peace with the little kid inside who didn't have the chance to say what he wanted to say."
But, the director cautions, it's also about telling a story in an entertaining way. A six-piece band will sweeten The Jazz Singer, accompanying the musical sequences for a show-within-a-show, called April Showers.
Is it a musical or a play with music?
Characters do not sing in character, Sabellico said, but there are "big" song and dance sequences. All the songs are "stage" songs sung in context of the Broadway musical that "the jazz singer" is starring in.
Among the period numbers are "You Made Me Love You," "Baby Face," "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" and more. Jolson is associated with many of them.
Rafaelson's dialogue was weeded through, eliminating some of the cliches of the period. "It was written in 1925," Sabellico said. "What 42nd Street or Crazy for You spoofs, they were dead serious about. But the essence of what he wrote, especially in the family scenes, is full of heart."
The cast includes Evalyn Baron, Beth Leavel, James Murtaugh, Jimmy Peters, Ric Ryder, Reuben Schaefer, Seth Swoboda and Raymond Thorne.
Designers for the JRT production are Tom Beall (set), Russell Mowery (costume) and Rich Lotta (lighting). Kirby Ward is the choreographer. Christopher McGovern is vocal arranger, orchestrator and musical director.
Playhouse 91 is at 316 E. 91st Street. Tickets are $35. For information, call (212) 831-2000.
Next up for director Sabellico and JRT: The first New York revival of Arthur Laurents' Home of the Brave (1945), starring Robert Sella as Coney.
On the subject of Jolson, The York Theatre Company in New York City will present a three-character look at the career of Al Jolson, when Jolson & Co., a new musical, begins Nov. 23.
It was thought to be the first Jolson-related project to hit New York before 2000, but the JRT's Jazz Singer beats them all this fall. Other Jolson projects include the touring musical, Jolson, which has period songs, and the in-development Sam Harris project, The Jazz Singer, based on Jolson's life (not the Raphaelson play), with music and lyrics by Will Holt.
-- By Kenneth Jones