In content the show was a montage of material from the 1920’s, with quips by Groucho Marx, Mae West and Al Capone; interviews with Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and George Gershwin; poetry by T.S Eliot, piano music of Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong and James P Johnson, and songs by Gershwin, Ray Henderson and Fats Waller. This material and more was inspired by a renowned essay by F Scott Fitzgerald.
In style it is a hybrid of jazz club set, with a theatrical evening featuring two celebrities – pianist Simon Tedeschi and renowned Australian theatre lead, John Bell, along with guest artist Blazey Best. The staging, especially in the larger of the Riverside spaces, was simple, but accompanied by effective lighting.
This show follows on from two others. One featuring John Bell solo, recently at the Sydney Opera House, was a journey through Shakespeare excerpts interspersed with his reflections. Its staging seemed even simpler than the Jazz Age event, yet his presence was no doubt personalised allowing his cultivated voice to be shaped around biographical, authentic storytelling, and script rendition close to his lifelong passions.
The audience at Echoes of the Jazz Age no doubt enjoyed their evening with these two virtuoso performers, but somewhere in the middle of it I longed for a more first hand meeting with John, rather than one mediated around the busy, somewhat fragmented context of a long past musical decade.
Blazey Best, the guest performer, acquitted a classic set of 20’s songs, including Bye Bye Blackbird, with a lively dynamic, and Simon played right up to expectations with impeccable renditions of Gershwin and Alexander’s Ragtime. There were frequent applauses through the show to individual pieces.
Tedeschi and Bell have previously teamed together with a piece featuring music by Schubert and poetry by Keats. Responses to that show, with more focused emotions and style, seem very strong. John did read T.S. Eliot’s We are the Hollow Man during Echoes of the Jazz Age, with his poignant and classic voice, and there was certainly room for more literary material in addition to the narration.
The narration, including mock interviews, anecdotes and jokes, was shared between all performers, even if John carried the main body of it. The narration was all read, from prominent large and handheld book/folders. One felt this technique, as well as the formal style of Fitzgerald’s essay, created a factual, less immediate backbone to material that could have been served with a more conversational text, and remembered at least in main sections. Additional theatrical effects such as a dancer and projection would have further enhanced the show without complicating the focus on the main performers.
I am sure the audience was satisfied with a rare evening out with keynote Australian performers, although it would be interesting to compare this work to the two previous ones featuring John Bell, one in collaboration with Simon Tedeschi.
ECHOES OF THE PAST played for one night only, Saturday 27th March, 2021 at the Riverside Theatres,. Parramatta.