If “Saturday Night Fever” can be a stage musical, why not “The Jazz Singer”? The Jewish Repertory Theater presents what it is calling both a “free adaptation” and a “new musicalization” of Samson Raphaelson’s 1925 play and its subsequent legendary film. Perhaps not free enough, or maybe too new, this “Jazz Singer” simply lies there inert whenever its star, Ric Ryder in the Al Jolson role, stops belting. Book writer and director Richard Sabellico has wisely loaded the evening with more than a dozen standards for Ryder to perform. Unwisely, he has left in all the dead air between those songs.
“The Jazz Singer” tells an odd backstage story, one that has probably doomed its stage prospects until, unfortunately, now: The show does not go on. (What legit producer would want to promote such an outre concept?)
Joe Robin, a.k.a. Jack Rabinowitz, leaves the musical “April Showers” on the day of its Broadway premiere to substitute for his ill father, a cantor at the local synagogue. For most of the evening, Robin/Rabinowitz keeps flipping a coin: my Broadway opening or Yom Kippur?
“The Jazz Singer” is directed as if Arthur Miller had written the book and not, well, Richard Sabellico. It’s doubtful that Brian Dennehy & Co. ever toyed with this many dramatic pauses in their entire Broadway run. As director, Sabellico gives the audience way too much time between individual line readings to think about what he’s written.
But Ryder is a truly thrilling singer. In his boyish attitude and appearance, he recalls Donald O’Connor. And yet somehow this nontraditional piece of casting doesn’t work, despite the vocal gifts on display.
Schmaltz isn’t in Ryder’s vocabulary, and so the recitative in his big act one finale, “Mammy,” falls flat. (The number is performed sans black makeup, but with Ryder wearing white gloves. Go figure.)
The Robin/Rabinowitz character should function with the killer instinct of any star who worships at the altar of self. Ryder instead presents a nice guy who becomes petulant and whines when torn between those theater animals (Beth Leavel, Raymond Thorne) who would like a job in the morning and his parents.
As played by Evalyn Baron, Mrs. Rabinowitz loads the stage with schmaltz, and as the cantor, James Murtaugh would murder anyone unlucky enough to come between a prayer shawl and his rendition of “Kol Nidre.”
“The Jazz Singer” wants it both ways: Joe/Jack sings at the synagogue, and “April Showers” somehow turns into a success without him. At the show’s 500th performance, the young cantor returns finally to make his triumphant Broadway debut. Everybody is happy, but in real life and “Funny Girl,” Flo Ziegfeld would have banished him to Brooklyn forever.