Drama of an Orchard St. cantor’s son returns

[media-credit name=”Photo by Alex Roe ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Justin Flagg as Jack Robin, Nona Pipes as Sara Rabinowitz and Michael Durkin as Harry Lee.

Metropolitan’s ‘Jazz Singer’ first NYC production since 1925

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  On April 25, 1917, a college student named Samson Raphaelson went to see a show called “Robinson Crusoe” at a theater in Champaign, Illinois.

Nineteen days earlier, the United States had entered World War I — but what more immediately stunned young Raphaelson (a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York) was, as he would later recall, the astonishingly passionate “velocity” and “fluidity” of an unknown performer also from the Lower East Side of New York. It was as if a cantor in a synagogue had put on blackface to dig into the soul of a congregation during the High Holy Days.

The unknown actor/singer was Asa Yoselson, born in Russia on or about (by his own later guesstimate), May 25, 1886 — brought at age 6, along with mama and the three other surviving kids, to that same Lower East Side (where papa served as a cantor and occasional rabbi).

Asa Yoselson grew up to be Al Jolson. And since the show that Raphaelson saw in Champaign, Illinois, had been “Robinson Crusoe” — and Jolson had appeared in it in blackface — one hazards that the role was that of “Friday,” the dark-skinned native who becomes castaway Crusoe’s savior, protector and manservant.

This is not irrelevant.

In 1922, five years after seeing “Robinson Crusoe,” Sam Raphaelson wrote a short story about an up-and-coming young Lower Eastsider named Jakie Rabinowitz who as “Jack Robins” is on his way toward stardom on the musical-comedy stage — much to the fury of his father, an aging and ailing Orchard Street cantor who would have his son abandon such low class junk and follow in papa’s footsteps. After the story appeared in a national magazine, Raphaelson was encouraged to turn it into a play called “The Jazz Singer,” in which the climax has Jack/Jakie torn between his make-or-break opening night on Broadway and his father’s simultaneous deathbed.

It is this all but forgotten 1925 play that became the 1927 Warner Bros. talking (and singing) motion picture that — making a worldwide star of Al Jolson — put to rest the silent-film era. It is this same stage play that is now back in being at the Lower East Side’s Metropolitan Playhouse.

It is also this city’s first professional production since the 1920s of Raphaelson’s original script.

The prime mover at Metropolitan Playhouse is founder, lead producer, artistic director, “and everything else” Alex Roe — a Harvard graduate who from time to time had seen fragments of the Warner Bros. movie but had never heard of Raphaelson’s play until a friend told him about it last summer.

Laura Livingston, who had done some acting as well as directing at Metropolitan Playhouse, had never heard of this play either, much less the short story that had preceded it.

It is not every script that has a Jew putting on blackface to sing “Mammy” songs that deeply stir an audience’s mixed emotions.

One imperiled minority doubling as another.

And not easy to cast.

Ms. Livingston: “I had some people say to me: ‘I can’t audition for that. It’s too distasteful.’ ”

Mr. Roe: “I had people saying the same thing when I did ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ last year. So I had a little trepidation this year.”

It might be noticed, says this noticer, that some white actors have been putting on blackface for upwards of five hundred years. To play Othello.

Neither Roe nor Laura Livingston are, if that matters, Jewish.

There are three moments in the play when, with the actors’ backs to the audience, we hear the offstage voice of Jack Robin (Justin Flagg) raised in wrenching song — the movie’s big production numbers. (If we hadn’t seen Jolson and Co. doing those numbers, Hollywood would still be in the silent era.)

What’s in the short story but not in the play is, in Ms. Livingston’s words, that “Jakie’s father has thrown him out of the house when Jakie reveals his engagement to a shiksa.” Jack Robin’s relationship with his costar, Mary Dale (Christine Claiborne Bullen) is a good bit more tentative than that.

“The story, the play and the movie are three different things,” says director Livingston, whose “day job,” as she puts it, is improvisational theater.

A native of Oak Park, Illinois, she was waiting tables at Second City, Chicago, when her admission to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School came through and whisked her off to England, leaving the unknown awestruck Second City improvisers (Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy, et al.) gaping in astonishment.

“Went to England, studied at the Bristol Old Vic, came back, turned on the television — and there they all were.”

Nowadays, she lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband, Michael Durkin, the actor who plays Jack Robin’s no-nonsense Broadway producer in the Metropolitan’s “The Jazz Singer.”  Jakie Rabinowitz’s mama and cantor papa are played by Nona Pipes and Charles Gerber,

Al Jolson left us in 1950, but his excitement carries on. One incidental:

When young Judy Garland wanted to break away from Louis B. Mayer and strike out on her own as a singer, she went to her beloved Oscar Levant and asked him what should she sing. The acerbic Oscar uttered two words: “Sing Jolson.” And that’s just what she did.

Oh Judy. Oh Swanee. Oh Mammy. Oy, oy. oy….


Written by Samson Raphaelson

Directed by Laura Livingston

Nov. 12-Dec. 11

Wed.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 3pm through Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm
Pay-What-You-Will performance on Mon., Nov. 14, at 7:30pm
Additional 3pm matinees: Sat., Nov. 26, Dec. 3 & 10
No performance on Wed./Thurs., Nov. 23/24

At the Metropolitan Playhouse (220 E. 4th St., btw. Aves. A & B)

Tickets: $22; $18 for students, seniors; $10 for those under 18

For reservations: 212-995-5302 or metropolitanplayhouse.org