Toni Robinson (right) excels in The Jazz Club. Mark Pafume doesn't.
Toni Robinson (right) excels in The Jazz Club. Mark Pafume doesn't.
Lyle Beitman

Lady Sings the Blahs

Rose Robinson is tired. She's tired of white men calling all the shots; tired of dreaming about one day being a famous singer, like Billie Holiday; and sick of working in seedy nightclubs. She sings in Sam's Jazz Club on weekends, and at any other sleazy bar with a bandstand the rest of the time. Tonight -- a warm evening in World War II-era Manhattan -- her pianist hasn't shown up, and her brother, a hoofer who goes on after Rose, is late.

In Black Theatre Troupe's new production of John Nassivera's The Jazz Club, Rose is brought elegantly to life by Toni Robinson in a performance that is this show's single saving grace. She's a silken jazz crooner, supple in voice and plaintive in emotions, and her several dramatic scenes elevate this otherwise mediocre production.

The show's potential virtues are held hostage by a baffling script device and expurgated versions of some snappy old standards. The play-with-music's story is fundamentally an intimate one about two people -- a penniless black woman and a wealthy white man -- but it's often difficult to care about them when we're distracted by flimsy sets and endless exposition. David (Mark Pafume), an expatriate from England, is a big fan of Rose's who's paid to replace her accompanist for one night. She mistakes his offer of a recording deal for a come-on and, determined to break free of "Whitey's" oppression, refuses him.


The Jazz Club

Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland

Continues through April 15. For information call 602-258-8129.

Nassivera's script is too tidy in its resolution, and chock-a-block with clichéd dialogue, but the story's major flaw is its structure. Rose and David have long, involved discussions between songs, leaving us to wonder what in the world their Jazz Club audience is supposedly doing while they converse and bicker onstage. Robinson's delightful singing is given short shrift by the show's truncated versions of swell old songs ("Strange Fruit," "Night and Day," "Love Me or Leave Me") and by her co-star's halfhearted piano accompaniment.

Jeff Eros' skimpy set design is all wrong. Its great purplish walls, covered with faintly chalked musical notes and with tiny head shots in cheap frames, provide a bland backdrop for the proceedings. Nicole Dedrue's lighting provides some compensation, its murky barroom glow blazing with warm colors whenever Robinson steps up to her microphone.

This stationary set provides director David Hemphill with few staging options, but he resists the urge to simply drag his actors back and forth across it. He poses them instead in interesting configurations, and uses the house exits to draw us into a more realistic club setting. Still, some of Hemphill's blocking is baffling. Why, for instance, does David Stone disappear completely from view whenever he steps behind his piano? And why does Pafume deliver so many of his lines into midair, or out over our heads, or anywhere but directly to his leading lady?

Pafume is not a natural actor and, as the well-heeled Britisher, pushes himself so hard that he crosses the line into caricature. By evening's end, when Rose and David are supposed to have reached a redemptive respite in their quarreling, the pair seem to have only just met -- largely because Pafume's played David at the same pitch throughout.

It's all very frustrating, watching this half-baked production, because somewhere in The Jazz Club is an interesting story. The evening was saved, for me, by Robinson's wonderfully emotive singing and strong stage presence, which shone through her very gloomy surroundings.


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