REP’s ‘Federal Jazz Project’ offers great music, muddled plot
By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
Whether a fan of jazz or newcomer to the genre, San Diego REPertory Theatre’s “Federal Jazz Project” is sure to be music to one’s ears, though the plot is a bit confusing.
The show is making its world premiere at the Lyceum Stage through May 5. The combination of spoken word, historical fiction, border poetry, live jazz, bi-national history, percussive tap dance and original song was written by Richard Montoya and scored by Gilbert Castellanos, both well-known in the San Diego music scene and throughout the country.
Montoya narrates the story that starts in 1939 and progresses to the present day. It focuses on how jazz shaped and was influenced by San Diego and her sister city, Tijuana. To symbolically emphasize their connection, successes and struggles, each is represented by a woman — sisters — bearing the name of one of the cities.
Tijuana is played by tap dancer Claudia Gomez while San Diego is portrayed by guitarist and singer Lorraine Castellanos. Both are extremely talented, truly feeling the emotions that their respective numbers evoked and conveying those emotions to the audience in mesmerizing fashion.
For the story, they are brought to perform in a San Diego club south of Broadway by Kidd (Joe Hernandez-Kolski). The sisters’ success leads to brief movie careers during World War II, but when Kidd and Tijuana marry after the war their happiness is short-lived. This is where the plot becomes confusing, because some time warping occurs with the main characters and historical events.
“Federal Jazz Project” was inspired by jam sessions Montoya and Gilbert Castellanos participated in for years, plus the region’s history. Throughout the two-hour show references are made to many neighborhoods — including Poway — and historical events — such as the 1954 red scare in Logan Heights when the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities held hearings in San Diego to investigate communism among blacks and Hispanics. It shows the struggles, inequalities and injustices suffered by minorities in San Diego and how wars led to emotional injuries to military veterans.
While emotionally heavy at times, there are many lighthearted moments too. Much of this is fueled by the music that in many ways is a character itself. In addition to many jokes about San Diego communities, the second act starts with a nod to “The Lawrence Welk Show” by featuring guest musicians who change throughout the show’s run. If like those featured on opening night last Friday, they are sure to amaze the audience with their musical talents.
“Federal Jazz Project” serves to entertain and enlighten by tackling difficult subject matter, making it most appropriate for mature audiences. Most is in English, though some is in Spanish, which means non-Spanish speakers lose some of the show’s full impact. The one unfortunate thing for the show’s future is the difficulty it will have in being successfully performed outside the San Diego region due to its heavy reliance on local geographic references, especially for jokes.
Matinee and evening shows continue through May 5, with some offering surround events before or after the performances. Tickets are $31 to $52, with student, senior, military and group discounts available. Purchase by calling 619-544-1000 or going to www.sdrep.org.
The Lyceum Stage is at 79 Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. Four hours of validated parking are available to those who use the Horton Plaza Garage.
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