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THEATER REVIEW: San Diego Rep’s “Federal Jazz Project” | VIDEO

“Jazz, like history, can never be silent,” says el Poeta (Richard Montoya), narrator of “Federal Jazz Project,” now have its world premiere at San Diego Repertory Theatre.

Sam Woodhouse directs this big, loud, raucous valentine to border towns San Diego and Tijuana, encompassing the years from 1939 on. It’s a collaboration between Richard Montoya (writer of the often-poetic script) and trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, composer of the original jazz score who also leads the boffo onstage band of five.

Audience participation is achieved each night by the inclusion of several musicians from outside the band. On opening night, there were two fine alto sax players (Charlie Arbelaez and Christopher Hollyday) and two outstanding trumpeters (Patrick Escalante and Matt Hall).

San Diego and Tijuana are like sisters growing up together, who may squabble and fight but in the end realize they need each other. Here they are represented in the flesh as a song-and-dance team – dancer Tijuana (Claudia Gomez) and singer San Diego (Lorraine Castellanos).
The story takes place in a little club called (or located) South of Broadway. It’s a more or less hidden dive run by a guy named Sal (Mark Pinter), where booze flows freely and hot jazz is played nightly. Kidd (Joe Hernandez-Kolski) shows up one night in 1939 and convinces Sal to give the girls a try. (“No hairy armpits,” warns Sal. “This ain’t Little Italy.”)

They are terrific, and Sal keeps them on for a week or so. Meanwhile, Kidd (who has a case on Tijuana) gets drafted and goes off to war.

“Federal Jazz Project” is difficult to categorize. It’s not a play, really, though there are characters and a certain through line of a plot. It’s not a concert, exactly, though there is a lot of fine jazz music to be heard. The script is a combination of poetic description and weak jokes like this exchange:

Kidd: “Maybe we could do something artistic down here.”
Sal: Never say that word. You want art? Go to El Cajon.”

A lot of territory is covered here, including Communism (Tijuana is accused of being Red; racism (Keith Jefferson as black serviceman Jules contributes his own story about coming home after two tours of duty and being consigned to live in “Nigger Hill” (Woodlawn Park), a neighborhood east of Otay in South Bay); Rafas (four guys who are actually members of Los Cabrones Motorcycle Club), Mexican filmmaking (a producer played by Montoya wants to hire the girls to make some films). There is talk about doings in the basement of El Cortez Hotel, but not enough information to understand the references. It’s all a bit chaotic and scattershot.

Some of the dialogue and lyrics are in Spanish, leaving some of the audience in the dark – much like the communication problem that still exists between the two cultures.

A huge amount of talent is on display here: the band is terrific (though the sound level is a bit too high for those on the ground floor). Gomez is a sensational tap dancer, and Castellanos (the band leader’s wife) has a wonderfully listenable jazz singer’s voice.

Montoya as el Poeta is terrific in his main role as narrator, in no small part because his lines are near poetry and he delivers them well. He’s also a kick as the Mexican filmmaker and in a few and other roles.

Mark Pinter is masterful in the disparate triple roles of Sal, a G-man and Lawrence Welk. Hernandez-Kolski is likable as Kidd. Jefferson is excellent as Jules, though the role as written seems to be out of another play.

Projections are used as backdrop – photos of Balboa Park attractions in 1939 local neighborhoods and the like – are variably effective. Some are clear, but others are a bit too fuzzy.

“Federal Jazz Project” could use some tightening and better focus. It’s a long show, and some elements aren’t clear (for example, why is Lawrence Welk necessary? Why are the Rafas important?)

The history of San Diego is interesting (especially to this native). This story deserves to be told, but more clearly.

The details

“Federal Jazz Project” plays through May 5 on San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm; some Saturdays at 2 pm and some Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm.

Ticket:s (619) 544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.