Arts Theatre

The Jazz Mother


She stands on the platform, waving off the train that brought her here. There’s a baby in a carrier and a microphone in a stand beside her, a swing sensibility to her look, and a dawning realization in her head that Badger’s Bluff, Iowa in 1937 probably doesn’t have any nightclubs for her to sing at.

In other words, Bobbie Romayne (Jocelyn Ahlf) is a stranger—”a new sort of person,” she’s soon dubbed—in a particularly quiet, steadfast land, a quintessentially Lemoine-ian scenario that lends itself to a gentle shake-up of the routine she inadvertently invades, rooming in a boarding house run by an overly sweet, lovelorn Polish man, Tomas (Mat Busby), and the only other tenant, Enid (Kristi Hansen), a nurse, and recipient of his unadmitted affections, and a lady of a few unrequited longings of her own.

Teatro La Quindicina’s season-opening revival of The Jazz Mother (last seen: 1991) has a sweet, fun pace to how it plays through the problem of a secret heart. That baby takes a long walk, to which Romayne seems firmly unconcerned (to the horror of the other two); we see her audition to sing at a couple of funeral homes; we see the others, when they think they’re alone, take a stand before that microphone and let their imaginations project into it. Jazz isn’t exactly popular in Badger’s Bluff—as Enid puts it: “there’s too much rhythm, until there’s not enough”—but its sense of swing proves irrepressible soon enough.

The trio of performers, all new to the script, attack the material with infectious aplomb. Ahlf’s titular mama, in addition to an incredible voice that isn’t wasted, plays her bebop sensibility; Busby’s kindly, accented Tomas finds a nice balance of people-pleasing nature and utter bewilderment; Hansen’s Enid’s high-strung sweetness quickly unspools.

Soon enough, the revelations start tumbling out of everyone, hilarious horror stories of music gone wrong; later, a quiet sadness colours the script’s edges. There’s a climactic scene in which Romayne commandeers the boarding house’s living room for a radio broadcast of her records and a dance. Whether the radio is legitimately broadcasting to anywhere else is neither here nor there; it’s convincing to them—the power of a microphone and confidence—and it lets defences tumble down, and offers the opportunity for music and dance to help nudge love along. It’s a gorgeous moment to see play out, and that sort of beautiful transcendence, the layers of depth, that let The Jazz Mother‘s flights of fancy and longing push a little farther past the usual limits, without losing any of its pervasive sense of fun.

Until Sat, Jun 14 (7:30 pm; 2 pm Saturday matinee)
Directed by Stewart Lemoine
Varscona Theatre, $16 – $30



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