Imagine you just stepped into a jazz club at the end of a long day. You sit down to hear some music. There-s a local band on stage-no one special-just some guys trying to play the music they love and make a few bucks. You try to listen, but seated next to you is a group of people talking. You can hear from their words that they like jazz, or at least that they like to talk about the fact that they like jazz. But amazingly, despite being in the presence of real jazz musicians, they never stop talking. They clearly didn-t come to hear the music and because they-re so in love with telling each other about just how much they like jazz, you-re unable to hear any music yourself.
This is perhaps the only way to accurately describe experiencing Like Jazz, a strange amalgam of words, movement, and music that is being sold as theater at the Mark Taper Forum. The posters for Like Jazz trumpet the work as -a new kind of musical,- but do not be fooled. It is neither new nor kind, and it is certainly not a musical.
Music is the main problem with Like Jazz, chiefly because it doesn-t sound at all Like Jazz. The show-s songs are written by Cy Coleman, a very good Broadway composer, but a writer of show tunes, often jazzy ones, but not jazz. The lyrics are courtesy of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the songwriting team responsible for some of the most iconic movie and television songs from the last 30 years. But again, not jazz.
This wouldn-t be such a problem if there were characters and a dramatic situation for the songs to elucidate. Strangely enough, the Taper hired one of the most legendary writers in show business to provide a context for these songs, but all Larry Gelbart delivers is stale patter that kills time between the ersatz jazz numbers.
The show-s only dramatic conceit is a narrator, played by Harry Groener, who is to Like Jazz what the Stage Manager is to Our Town. But whereas Thornton Wilder used his narrator to relate omniscient information about the residents of Grover-s Corners, Groener is relegated to regurgitating trivia, anecdotes, and one-liners about sax players and lounge pianists.
A play like Warren Leight-s SIDEMAN worked because it told a story with the music in the background: audiences unfamiliar with jazz were brought into its fascinating world while aficionados could appreciate its knowing details. Without any dramatic construction or devices, Like Jazz feels like a children-s' concert or a music appreciation lecture.
Just as there is no story and no characters, there are also no sets. The Mark Taper Forum has been transformed into what looks like a 1970-s stage from American Bandstand. 18 jazz musicians sit on-stage throughout the show, which only adds to the sensation that you-re not at the theater, but rather at a supper club that sadly allows neither dancing nor drinking.
It would be great to report that while the show was bad, at least the individual performances were strong. Sadly this is not the case. Besides the full voiced Patti Austin, the singing is not particularly good. Neither is the dancing.
The low point of the evening was a clich-d saxophone ballad about how saxophone players are cool which is accompanied by somebody writhing around on the floor with a fake saxophone doing an interpretive dance of a person playing a saxophone.
Even the presence of a real jazz icon like Jack Sheldon doesn-t improve the proceedings-the routines he-s given feel like Doc Severinsen sketches from the old Tonight Show and his big song -Don-t Touch My Horn- is just a catalogue of tired double entendres.
Obviously the creators of Like Jazz want other people to like jazz as much as they do-but rather than write an old fashioned musical about jazz or even better, simply sponsoring a jazz festival, what they-ve done is create a jazz-themed revue, one that would more be appropriate on a Vegas stage or a cruise ship-but as a musical on a legitimate stage, Like Jazz is thoroughly unsatisfying.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.