Nothing captures the dilemma of being a Jew in America as starkly as “The Jazz Singer,” the paradigmatic tale of a cantor’s son caught between the two worlds of immigrant Jewish life and success as a blackface entertainer on Broadway. Most know the story from the three film versions — Al Jolson’s electrifying 1927 “first talkie,” Danny Thomas’ 1952 Academy Award-nominated remake (co-starring Peggy Lee) and Neil Diamond’s flag-waving 1980 pop music version.
Now comes Samson Raphaelson’s original 1925 stage play, which starred George Jessel as the conflicted protagonist, Jakie Rabinowitz. Directed by Laura Livingston, “The Jazz Singer” is in a limited run at the Metropolitan Playhouse, a two-decade old company in the East Village that specializes in American and American-themed plays.
In “The Jazz Singer,” Jakie (Justin Flagg) incurs the wrath of his father (Charles E. Gerber), an elderly, imperious cantor who frowns on both his son’s dedication to performing secular music and his son’s relationship with a non-Jewish girl (Christine Bullen). When the cantor becomes ill on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jake must decide whether or not to sacrifice his singing career for the sake of leading his father’s congregation in prayer.
Raphaelson, who was born on the Lower East Side in 1894, was a playwright and screenwriter who collaborated on nine films (including “Trouble in Paradise” and “Heaven Can Wait”) with Ernst Lubitsch, and on one film (“Suspicion”) with Alfred Hitchcock. Like “The Jazz Singer,” Raphaelson’s “Accent on Youth” (revived in 2009 by the Manhattan Theatre Club), has also inspired three different film treatments. But it is “The Jazz Singer,” inspired by a Jolson performance that Raphaelson attended as a student at the University of Illinois, for which the writer is the most renowned.
When “The Jazz Singer” first appeared on Broadway, it was dismissed by major drama critics as a “comedy of race” geared to a second-generation Jewish audience that, while forsaking the downtown Yiddish theater for more mainstream Broadway fare, still thrilled to plays that encapsulated Jewish concerns about the price of assimilation. And as the Metropolitan’s artistic director, Alex Coe, told The Jewish Week, the play still speaks to the ways in which ethnic outsiders in America aspire to balance their ancestral traditions with the enticements and opportunities of modern life.
“Jake finds respect and power in the theater world, but the things that make him glorious in that world make him an exile in the world of his fathers,” Coe explained. “He can’t be all cantor or all bum, but he’s half both. Instead of offering a compromise, the play suggests that you can hold two contradictory beliefs in your head at the same time, like an electron that can be in two places at once.”
But as Livingston, the director, pointed out, “Jakie acts more out of loyalty to his father than to his belief in the religion that he ran away from.” Nowadays, she added, “more people are allowed to choose their own path. It’s possible to be a musician and be religious too.”
“The Jazz Singer” runs through Dec. 11 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. Fourth St. (Avenues A-B). Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $22, call (212) 995-5302 or visit metropolitanplayhouse.org.