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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Laura Hitchcock
He didn't compose, perform or write it but Like Jazz, the stunning musical which premiered at The Mark Taper Forum, feels very much like the creation of its director, Gordon Davidson. Originally commissioned by The Kennedy Center as a song cycle for their Millenium Jazz Celebration, the project was then called Portraits in Jazz: A Gallery of Songs.
Veteran composer Cy Coleman and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman created a deft array of story songs about musicians in all their various roles. Seeking a larger life than its single performance in May, 2002, the creative team enlisted writer Larry Gelbart to write connective tissue and brought it to Davidson who assembled it as one of the three productions he will direct in his ultimate year at CTG.
It begins with a music lesson from Harry Groener who, with the help of conductor Tom Kubis and his band, demonstrates such jazz terms as vamp, riff and rhythm and the essential band sections of sax, brass and keyboard. Next come the voices.
The score is an homage to the great ballads and easy listening jazz of the 1930s to 1950s. Lillias White leads off, lending her rich spine-tingling voice to a shivering rendition of "He Was Cool." "Quality Time" is a sensational ballad and trumpeter/singer Jack Sheldon, a classic all by himself, has two numbers, most memorably "A Little Trav'lin' Music" Cleavant Derricks, whose big mellow voice evokes memories of Billy Eckstein, and the sweetly caressing tones of Patti Austin blend in the duet "Being Without You." Austin teams up with White in the furiously funny "Cheatin'." Jennifer Chada brings impeccable sultry precision to "59th & 3rd" and "The Double Life of Billy T.", a story-song about jazz great Billy Tipton who started life as Dorothy. Photos of Tipton in various stages are projected on the backdrop.
Mark I. Rosenthal's projections are a striking design element, ranging from luscious palm tree silhouettes for "In Miami" to tenements behind "59th & 3rd." A New York skyline backs the long slow stretches of Natalie Willes's sinuous graceful dance. One of D. Martyn Bookwalter's most blissful set designs is a keyboard graced with a Martini glass that descends from the ceiling. His cocktail lounge lighting makes the Taper everything you want when you're listening to smooch music.
Not that it's all langorous. Besides "Cheatin'", there's "Those Hands", a rousing tribute to piano men; "Scattitude" Patti Austin's personal homage to scat singing and the joyful staging and choreography of Pat Birch, interpreted by diminutive Dameka Hayes who dances with sass, exotic Nicki Richards, beautiful Katy Durham and the impossibly long legs and athletic grace of Carlton Wilborn, Timothy Ware, augmented by a talented ensemble. Judith Dolan's period costumes reinforced the big band era.
Most of all, this is a treasury of lyrics that are evocative and clever, melodies that go home from the theatre with you and the joy and passion that this kind of music communicates through artists who have loved it for a lifetime.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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