Shortly after Jewish Repertory Theatre completed an Oct. 23-Nov. 21, 1999 run of the musical The Jazz Singer, producer Hy Juter told Playbill On-Line he was raising money to transfer the production to a commercial Off-Broadway house that spring. That didn’t happen, but the show is back on its feet, first enjoying a short run at Queens Theatre in the Park, Nov. 10-Nov. 19 before targeting an OB run for spring 2001.
Acccording to QTIP spokesperson Sam Rossi, the $70,000 advance sale for Jazz Singer is a box office record for the venue, breaking the $59,000 figure set by If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Coming With You last year. A five-week run at the Forum Theatre in Metuchen, NJ, will follow the QTIP stint.
Juter, who has produced stage shows in his native South Africa, owns the musical stage rights to the classic 1925 play by Samson Raphaelson and initiated a workshop that caught the ear of JRT artistic director Ran Avni, who thought the show would be perfect for his audience. The property was licensed to JRT and adapted by Richard Sabellico, a veteran director and a JRT artistic associate.
JRT’s 1999 mounting at Playhouse 91 had packed houses cheering the yarn about a song and dance man torn between Broadway and his responsibility to his family tradition. Director-librettist Sabellico injected American popular songs into the plot's backstage story, which featured Ric Ryder in the title role.
Jeff Gardner is the show’s current Jolson, with Mary Setrakian, Genette Lane, Reuben Schafer, Paul Whelihan, Karen Hyland and Stephanie M. Kinney comprising the remaining cast. (Schafer is the only holdover from the JRT cast, which included Evalyn Baron, Beth Leavel, James Murtaugh, Jimmy Peters, Seth Swoboda and Raymond Thorne.) Forum Theatre Company artistic director Peter Loewy directs the current production. Juter expects the Off-Broadway capitalization to be $800,000 and is hoping for a 400-600-seat theatre.
Juter fell in love with all things related to Al Jolson when he was a child in Cape Town. His mother, who died before she could see the staging of The Jazz Singer, introduced Jolson's work to her son. "I've been a fan all my life," said Juter.
Jolson is linked to the property as star of the famous "talkie" film version of the play, about a Jewish cantor father who expects his son, Jacob Rabinowitz (stage name: Jack Robin), to follow his traditional path rather than sing jazz. The movie set off an industry revolution that left silent pictures in pop culture dustbin.
Period songs were interpolated into Samson Raphaelson's three-act drama, creating a new musical play. The musical numbers included "You Made Me Love You," "Baby Face," "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam," "Sonny Boy," "Mammy," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" and more.
"It's about tradition," Sabellico previously told Playbill On-Line. "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."
“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.
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."
For tickets ($16-$26) and information on The Jazz Singer at Queens Theatre in the Park in Flushing, call (718) 760-0064. Several performances are sold out.
-- By David Lefkowitz
and Kenneth Jones