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Theatre Reviews Review: The Jazz Singer has enthusiasm, but it’s missing the dramatic pop

Patrick Cook, centre, a talented guy, all matinee-idol handsome and with an excellent grasp of the Jazz Age city-swell accent, plays the titular role in The Jazz Singer at the Greenwin Theatre.

Joanna Akyol

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Jazz Singer
Written by
Michael Ross Albert
Genre
Musical
Directed by
Tim French
Actors
Patrick Cook, Kaylee Harwood, Theresa Tova, Victor A. Young
Company
Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company
Venue
Greenwin Theatre
City
Toronto
Year
2017
Runs Until
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Though a new version of The Jazz Singer has that swing, otherwise it's just a so-so thing.

Spry with a song-and-and-dance stride, Michael Ross Albert's new telling of Samson Raphaelson's Roaring Twenties story is the latest in a string of film and stage incarnations since 1925. Up and running at Toronto Centre for the Arts, a simple musical production that closes off the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company season wins points for enthusiasm, an Irving Berlin-happy score and a couple of dandy performances, but fails to pop dramatically.

It's a classic tale: The jazz-crooning son of a New York cantor deeply disappoints his father by doing the hits of the day instead of carrying on the family synagogue-singing tradition. Jack Robin (a.k.a. Jake Rabinowitz) performs Irving Berlin's Let Me Sing and I'm Happy, but his father's disapproval weighs on him heavily.

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"A knife through my heart," says the pious pop at one point, spitting the words "jazz singer" as if that pursuit were prostitution or worse. His father's dissatisfaction is oppressive; a son's love of what his father sees as "dirty music from the sidewalk" is seen as a profound betrayal. And so the natural-born entertainer left New York for Chicago, which is where the story begins.

In the titular role, following in the hoof steps of Al Jolson and George Jessel, is Patrick Cook. He's a talented guy, all matinee-idol handsome and with an excellent grasp of the Jazz Age city-swell accent. He can sing very well – Michael Bubla? – though his sweet and sunny tenor doesn't possess the melancholy of a man who should sing "with a teardrop in his voice."

His dancing is proficient, but carefully executed – he moves in a studied manner, as if the book he seemed to be balancing on his head had been written by Arthur Murray.

And while he doesn't sing My Mammy – the score has been revamped in this production – this is a son who clearly adores his mother. The mother is played by the veteran actress Theresa Tova, the soul of this production and the performer who received the most applause at the preview performance witnessed by The Globe on Sunday afternoon.

Victor A. Young is Cantor Rabinowitz. He's not on stage a lot, his presence more symbolic than active. His character is one-sided. We hear about his deathbed regret, but do not see it. What we do see is his son hiding his Jewishness in Chicago, where he's not only changed his name but his backstory – his father, as he tells it, is a judge.

Well, in so many ways, he is a judge, a harsh one at that. And he's not the only one. Robin's love interest, a Broadway star, goes from hot and bothered to just plain bothered when she finds out his real name is Rabinowitz. When Robin/Rabinowitz makes it to Broadway (after eight years away from New York and his family) a theatre director threatens to dock his pay at one point, making the point that money was what "you people" care about.

The story comes to a hilt when the jazz singer has to decide between making his Broadway premiere or to stand in for his dying father at the synagogue. It's his "day of atonement," but because the character never really seemed committed to the synagogue side of his divided soul, there's little sense of torment. This version of The Jazz Singer is more committed to Play a Simple Melody than anything affecting, its splashes of melodrama often unconvincing.

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The Jazz Singer runs through June 18 (hgjewishtheatre.com).

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