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Better than Bubbe?s homemade soup

by admin June 19, 2010

The story of the Jazz Singer has clearly withstood the test of time. Starting off as a Broadway play in 1925, it then became the first movie with sound in 1927. Now it’s been adapted as a Yiddish musical by Elan Kunin: lyricist, arranger, composer and lead actor. Oy gevalt!
While each version has brought something new to the table, the latest incarnation hasn’t reinvented the wheel. What it has done is embellished the show with some beautiful tunes and given it some real Jewish authenticity. This Segal Centre production steers away from some of the more controversial elements seen in previous productions, including the film’s use of backface and a song called “My Mammy”.
The Jazz Singer follows Jacob (Elan Kunin), a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who is destined to take over from his father as the cantor of his synagogue congregation. As his father blows out the candles on his 65th birthday cake, Jacob grows apprehensive; he wants to go to Manhattan and become a Broadway star- a jazz singer. By moving away he alienates his best friend David (Josh Gonshor), his girlfriend Miriam (Lisa Rubin) and his old man (Fishel Goldig).
The dialogue and songs are mostly performed in Yiddish with subtitles provided in both French and English. The multi-generational cast delivered their lines with enough fluency that it did not detract from the audience’s experience. This gave the show an authentic feel because in 1927 Brooklyn, Yiddish would have been the language this family spoke at home. Watching the play felt just as comfortable as visiting your grandparents and enjoying a warm bowl of Bubbe’s chicken soup — just with a hefty seasoning of razzle-dazzle.
Kunin’s musical score whips up toe-tapping tunes with well-thought out lyrics that have enough appeal to reach audiences of any generation. On-stage, Kunin is charismatic and lively when performing the jazz numbers, but tends to lack expression when performing dramatic scenes. As for confrontation — I’ve had worse fights with my neighbor’s dog than the father and son do in this production. The script also suffers slightly from too many untouched emotionally fraught moments that are immediately followed by jazz numbers. The result is a fun, yet tame play.
My biggest gripe is the production’s under-usage of the cast’s talented actresses. Lisa Rubin as Miriam blew the roof off its hinges with her unfaltering soprano, but was left offstage for most of the show to twiddle her thumbs. Even Jacob’s mother (Judy Strauber) essentially disappears after a touching mother-son moment in act two once she’s told to go away by her husband so he can speak to his son in private.
That being said, The Jazz Singer is more fun than you would think Yiddish theatre could be. It’s also probably the closest Montreal gets to the Great White Way.

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