Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The joint is jumpin' as Federal Jazz Project plays the Lyceum

Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos plays magnificently
as "La Trompeta" and band leader
. -- Production photos by Daren Scott 
Production photos by Daren Scott

Upbeat music meets San Diego history for a standing ovation -- one you'll want to be part of.
The well deserved applause is for "Federal Jazz Project" by San Diego Repertory Theatre.
This unusual production offers fine jazz, a thoughtful storyline and a trip down memory lane for San Diegans and jazz lovers alike.
The show is locally created and produced and performed in the intimate Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza downtown.
Part terrific jazz, part nostalgia, with a nod to patriotism and the Lawrence Welk Show, the production celebrates the rich ethnic mix that makes San Diego unique and appealing, to natives and newcomers alike.
I am a transplant from the northern Rockies.  My partner, Bruce Keller, is a native San Diegan. Each of us took his own set of sensibilities and history to this lively and beautifully lit production.
Directed by Sam Woodhouse, "Federal Jazz Project" has a music bag of thoughtful moments.  But just when the tone begins to get ponderous, the music brings back the joyful sense of fun.
Richard Montoya conceived of the story,
wrote the script and tells the tale.
 Mostly, we feel that we're front and center in a cabaret, and the action unfolds through the memory and anecdotes of the talented Richard Montoya, as the narrator "El Poeta," who also conceived of and wrote the story.  The bell clear, perfectly-pitched trumpet is played by the band leader, well known musician Gilbert Castellanos who also collaborated with Montoya to compose and curate the vintage parts of the score.
You'll find the joint jumpin' and your feet tappin' with the trumpet, piano, percussion, bass and sax contributions of a tightly knit on-stage quintet, turned out in '40s costumes.
What makes this such a unique treasure is the combination of wonderful jazz, played with spirit and precision, and the intertwining stories of music, politics and race exploring integration on several levels.
As a relative newcomer to this beautiful corner of the planet, I had no idea about "South of Broadway," but I knew of the El Cortez Hotel and other landmarks, neighborhoods and iconic hang-outs mentioned in the script.
A story unfolds through the eyes of El Poeta, dating back to pre-World War II San Diego, when a nightclub act cancels, giving that time-honored show-biz "break" to a
Claudia Gomez taps up a storm as the
character Tijuana.
two-woman act.  Joe Hernandez-Kolski is winning and wonderful as Kidd, who gets his girls their big chance, when he wins over tough-talking, no-nonsense nightclub operator Sally. (Kidd is also in love with one of his stars.) Mark Pinter is terrific, too, as the all business club owner who finds an irresistible cash cow in the two talented dames who sell out his club and go on to a career in cinema.
Tijuana and San Diego, the two girls, take us on a frolicking ride.
As Tijuana, Claudia Gomez is magnificent to watch.  Her tap dancing is a treat, a terrific throw-back to an earlier period in entertainment. She has studied her forbears and has the moves and energy of a first-class hoofer. She offers that rare combination of grace and spirit and knocks us out with her rapid tapping.  As San Diego, Lorraine Castellanos is gangbusters, too.  Her classical guitar and winning singing charm the audience and the "sisters" -- representing the two cities, of course -- have a couple fun numbers together.  You'll think of the Andrews Sisters and all the WWII songs that have withstood the test of time, with a special spin on San Diego's proximity to Tijuana.
“Federal Jazz Project” was inspired by jam sessions in which Montoya and Gilbert Castellanos collaborated. The tale takes a couple side trips from the song-and-dance theme and you have to pay attention to follow the storyline.
The production has a cabaret feeling, with a rich narrative.
 The character Jules, played by Keith Jefferson, takes us into the racially charged transition period of the city of San Diego, when Negroes were allowed to purchase property only in certain areas.  Jules, dressed in his military uniform, captures the irony implicit in so many wars in which African Americans proudly served and sacrificed, but were denied equal privileges and rights when they returned home.  His long speech is moving and his acting never bores. The well researched writing continues to explore the city's rich and complex history through many "in house" references to her neighborhoods and actual historical events including the 1954 red scare in Logan Heights during Joe McCarthy's infamous red-bating.  I had no idea that the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities held hearings in San Diego to investigate Communism among blacks and Hispanics. (Turns out, one of the sisters actually has Communist ties and that puts sadness in the story.)
The storyline also works hard to explore the struggles and injustices suffered by minorities in San Diego.  My only criticism, as a veteran theater reviewer, is that occasionally, the historical footnotes feel a bit too preachy, but this is a minor criticism in a gem of a production.
Gomez: rapid-fire tap dancing. 
As Tijuana, Claudia Gomez is magnificent to watch.  Her tap dancing is a terrific treat. She has studied her forbears and has the moves and energy of a first-class hoofer, offering that rare combination of grace and spirit.  She  knocks us out with her staccato tapping.  As San Diego, Lorraine Castellanos is gangbusters, too.  Her winning singing voice charms the audience and the two "sisters" -- representing the two cities, of course, have a couple fun numbers together, songs and styles that transcend time, with a special spin on San Diego's closeness to Tijuana.
If you're passionate about jazz and San Diego, treat yourself to a concert and a history lesson at "Federal Jazz Project," on stage through May 5. Go to or call 629 544-1000.
The Rep will host you to four hours if you park in Horton Plaza.
Cruising tips come your way Saturday,
then Cookie and Keller visit
San Francisco and have fun at Alcatraz!

COMING SATURDAY: Part Two to our  cruising tips and insights, with a look at what's out there -- from budget-minded adventures to penthouse escapes. Then we're off to San Francisco -- to unexpected pleasures at Alcatraz, a climb to Coit Tower and a stay in the dog-friendly Diva Hotel downtown!
We post Wednesdays and Saturdays! Tell your friends:
Enjoy, learn, live!

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