Equal but Separate

Originally opened in 1956 as a lavish restaurant, the Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room was reborn in the early Eighties as a jazz hot spot with its own house band, attracting the young and the hip to the Grove years before CocoWalk was built. Converted into a 130-seat cabaret theater in 1985, it now offers works too intimate or not commercial enough for the Playhouse's 1100-seat main stage. Apropos of the Encore Room's former musical incarnation is its current production, John Nassivera's The Jazz Club, which features more than a dozen standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, and others.

In the two-character Jazz Club, the audience, sitting at the theater's long bar and its mirrored tables, is transported back to New York City in 1941, as David Stone (David Beach) takes his place at the piano and welcomes the crowd to a night at Symphony Sam's Back Door, what he terms "the wrong place for all the right people." Rose Robinson (Adriane Lenox), the club's black singer, is surprised to find a white Englishman sitting in for her usual piano player. In a production structured more on two- and three-song sets than on dramatic scenes, Rose learns that David has bribed his way into accompanying her; it's step one in his plan to persuade her to hire him as her manager. Sent to the United States to establish a branch of the family business, he has instead been hitting all the jazz clubs, eventually targeting Rose as his chance to escape the world of commerce for a new life in music. As he confesses to her in an effort to win her trust, Rose is his "last best hope."

Whereas Beach turns his dialogue into upper-crust characterization, Lenox gets mired in melodrama. Contending with a script that calls on her to relate a lifetime of hardships, she manages to avoid going over the top by spitting out Rose's dialogue like a battle-weary survivor who long ago gave up conversation as potentially hazardous. Although her restraint underscores Rose's isolation, Lenox's portrayal never engages our emotions. She's further hampered in the musical scenes by her jazz singer's cool phrasing, which leaves her without the standard musical comedy tricks she might otherwise use to incorporate the lyrics into a dramatic narrative for her character.

One of the joys of listening to jazz is hearing improvisations on a song's melody. In this regard, The Jazz Club disappoints with its one-note thematic explorations, especially in its treatment of racial prejudice. An example: Rose nervously awaits her younger brother as the musical opens; later she watches horrified through the club's window as he's beaten up by whites (in offstage action) for getting lost in the wrong neighborhood. Another: Thrilled to be accepted into the Back Door Club as a regular, David is astounded to discover that its black patrons and Rose cannot be served at the bar.

Other riffs on prejudice are tacked on as mere codas rather than woven into the fabric of the play: With undisguised resentment, Rose tells David that she sings in a whorehouse some nights in order to make the rent money for her Jewish landlord; her anti-Semitism is shrugged off with one line and never again mentioned. Likewise the issue of economic enslavement is dealt with only fleetingly when Rose confronts David's management proposition: "You want our music 'cause you can't make your own," she tells him. "Then you want to lock me up in a record so you can sell me to someone else. So you can sell me to those white friends of yours." On the other hand, the work's untapped potential comes to the fore in a brief but powerful scene in which David divulges that his name actually is Stein, not Stone, and that the real reason his family has sent him to America is to keep him out of the clutches of the Nazis. "Kick over an English Stone and you'll find a Jewish Stein," he jokes to Rose as the two begin to discover common ground.

While The Jazz Club aims to be more than a revue (like Ain't Misbehavin', Sophisticated Ladies) and less than a structured musical (My One and Only, Crazy for You), it lacks the punch of either. For one thing, the order of the songs and the placement of the musical segments do not have a clear relationship with the drama, frustrating any attempts to convey a unified story line. In one of the evening's few reconciliations of music and drama, David forces Rose to confront her inner torments by playing Lewis Allen's haunting "Strange Fruit," which alludes to the lynching of blacks in the South. Lenox rises to the occasion, deftly evoking the lyrics' powerful imagery. As for Beach, whether his David is denying Rose's suspicious taunts that he is interested only in "getting some brown sugar" or calling her on her mistrust of whites, the actor effectively mixes British reserve and show-business chutzpah. In both his piano playing and his acting, Beach lets Lenox take the lead, and his solid backing provides the momentum that nearly overcomes the stops and starts of alternating musical and dramatic scenes.

Director Jeffrey B. Moss's staging exacerbates that wrong-headed music/drama dichotomy. Instead of presenting the entire performance unamplified to better integrate the musical numbers into the whole, he places a live microphone center stage. Beach and Lenox play the nonmusical scenes without body microphones and create a believable theatrical experience in the process. But the effect is ruined each time Lenox steps in front of the mike. M. Todd Williams's lighting design of "lights up" for drama, "lights down" for music emphasizes the work's disconnecting nature. And the tiny size of the Encore Room stage does not help. Beach and Lenox constantly cross the nightclub's stage and play out dramatic scenes in full view of what would be the Back Door's patrons.

Ultimately, The Jazz Club works better as an evening of music than it does as theater -- Beach and Lenox soar through the era's greatest hits, including "Body and Soul," "Love Me or Leave Me," "He's Funny That Way," "Night and Day," and "Let's Do It." And you know what they say about half a loaf.

The Jazz Club.
Concept and book by John Nassivera; music research and selection by Jeffrey Bernstein and John Nassivera; directed by Jeffrey B. Moss; with Adriane Lenox and David Beach. Through April 13. For information call 442-4000 or see "Calendar Listings.

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