Also see Sharon's review of Pageant
Your first clue that Like Jazz isn't an ordinary musical comes from the understudy slip. Rather than beginning with "The part usually played by," the notice informs you, "The songs usually performed by" one singer will be performed by another. There are no roles in Like Jazz. There are no sets, no props, and no costumes - at least, none that do anything more than hint at an environment in which a singer sings a song. In the continuum between "concert" and "musical," Like Jazz sits very firmly near the "concert" end, with only the occasional bit of choreography suggesting something more.
To the extent the show has a book, it is presented entirely by Harry Groener, who acts as a low-key host for the evening. Groener's dialogue is all gently-delivered metaphors and similes, intended to make the audience contemplate the passion of jazz and the drive to perform it. Groener's introductions build up jazz as something more than mere music - it is emotional, visceral, sexy. "Who knew your entire body was able to smile?" he asks.
And if the evening were comprised of some of the greatest jazz hits of all time, perhaps it would live up to the promise of the introduction. Instead it is all new music, composed by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. All of the lyrics have something to do with jazz - there are songs about different types of instruments (trumpet, sax, piano) and different types of musicians (street, club, bar). As with most new shows, the music is of varying quality, with some solid hits and some unremarkable misses. But when the songs are all that the show is, the bar is set higher than usual. A merely serviceable song in a book musical can be forgiven if it moves the plot along or design elements are particularly eye-catching. The same quality song in Like Jazz just sits there on the stage, boring an audience with which it fails to connect.
By intermission, Like Jazz starts to look like a failure. (I actually counted songs in the program to see how many I'd have to sit through before being released from the theatre.) But something remarkable happens in the second act: the songs get better. But more than that, the performers start connecting with the songs in a theatrical way, really selling the numbers and bringing the audience in. Patti Austin opens the act with a scat number which she ignites (in contrast to her first act number in which she displayed her gorgeous clear voice but little heart). Margo Reymundo, filling in for Jennifer Chada, scored with "The Double Life of Billy T.," the story of a woman who dressed as a man in order to play jazz when women weren't allowed to do so. The story is fascinating, the song is powerful, and Reymundo's delivery hints at the passion that must drive someone to deny their very identity. The legendary Jack Sheldon, who is wasted on a silly little first act number about how important a man's "instrument" is to him, nearly brings the audience to tears with "A Little Trav'lin' Music," his gravelly voice perfectly capturing the emotions of a performer in the waning days of his career.
And then there's Lillias White, whose larger-than-life delivery is the only consistent thing throughout the show. In the otherwise unmemorable first act, White brings down the house, singing her face off and shakin' what the good Lord gave her. At the end of the second act, she is joined by Austin in a rollicking duet which seems more like a showtune than a jazz song and is so character-driven it even has a brief introduction and a prop or two. It very nearly brings the audience to its feet, and is, in some ways, a bittersweet reminder of what could have been accomplished with all the musical theatre talent gathered for this project - if only they had decided to do an actual musical.
Like Jazz runs at the Mark Taper Forum through January 25, 2004. For tickets and information, click: www.taperahmanson.com.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum - Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director - in association with Transamerica - presents Like Jazz. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Written by Larry Gelbart. Musical Staging and Choreography by Patricia Birch. Directed by Gordon Davidson. Scenery and Lighting Designed by D Martyn Bookwalter; Costumes Designed by Judith Dolan; Sound Designed by Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen; Projections Designed by Marc I. Rosenthal; Music Director Tom Kubis; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA. Production Stage Manager Mary Michele Miner; Stage Managers Susie Walsh, David S. Franklin and James T. McDermott. Associate Producers Rudy Durand and Bud Yorkin.