Jennifer Chada, Patti Austin, Lillias White, and Cleavant Derricksin Like Jazz(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Jennifer Chada, Patti Austin, Lillias White, and Cleavant Derricks
in Like Jazz
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
I can't believe I'm about to quote a Julia Roberts movie, but I guess there's wisdom to be found even in Pretty Woman. At one point in the flick, Richard Gere says that "People's reactions to opera are very dramatic. Either they love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it but it will never be a part of their soul." Jazz is like opera. Either you're born with that fever roaring through your veins or you are immune to it. I wasn't born with that gene; therefore, I greatly appreciated Like Jazz at the Mark Taper Forum but I wasn't swept away by the show.

On the other hand, jazz aficionados will be in blue heaven if they attend this production, which is highlighted by a sizzling orchestra and the vocal peformances of the legendary Patti Austin and Lilias White. Like Jazz is a meditation on what has made jazz resonate throughout the 20th century. Though similar in style to the compilation revues Eubie, Sophisticated Ladies, and Ain't Misbehavin', it features a new score by composer Cy Coleman and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman; the songs are tied together by a master of ceremonies, Harry Groener (Crazy For You), who comments on the history and gossip of jazz.

Director Gordon Davidson fills the stage with winning moments. Under the backdrop of a slide of a young trumpeter lounging with his instrument, Austin sings the poignant "Biography," which features a trumpet solo by Warren Luening. In another number, White coos to a saxophonist who brandishes his instrument like a phallic tool. Singing the swinging Cuban-style number "In Miami," Tony winner Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls) demonstrates his chops. In "The Double Life of Billy T," Jennifer Chada mixes humor, intrigue, and pathos in the true tale of a '20s musician who posed as a man throughout her life. And in the fine tradition of show-stopping Broadway duets like "The Grass is Always Greener" from Woman of the Year, Austin and White belt out in "Cheatin'" their opinion that three may be company but four is definitely a crowd.

Tom Kubis and his 18 piece orchestra zing, their notes bouncing around the auditorium like ricocheting bullets. Jack Sheldon (whose voice my generation will recall from the "Conjunction Junction" segments of ABC's Schoolhouse Rock!) commands the stage with his stimulating renditions of "Don't Touch My Horn" and "A Little Trav'lin' Music" and wins thunderous applause.

Larry Gelbart, who won a Tony for Coleman's City of Angels, has written a revealing script that reaches a certain level of poetry; e.g., in reference to the effect that jazz can have on a person, someone says, "Who knew your whole body could smile?" Scenery and lighting designer D Martyn Bookwalter has crafted a neon-encrusted stage complete with columns and a backdrop of shadowed figures and instruments; that backdrop also serves as a screen for Mark I. Rosenthal's vivid projections. In a really nice touch, Bookwalter outlines the bandstand, the stage, and a prop piano in hot red or cool blue neon.

Like Jazz could use a more memorable score, and Patricia Burch's choreography detracts somewhat from the overall experience of the show; the dancers complement the singers well but they are accessories, not integral elements of the production. (Just imagine what Bob Fosse could have done with six dancers and the sound of that saxophone!) Still, despite its flaws, this is a robust musical that showcases some of Broadway's best voices. It's ironic that many of the songs refer to the isolation of jazz musicians even as we witness the cast and orchestra performing as one synergetic organism.