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Federal Jazz Project:  This Joint is Jumpin’!

Written by
in Theatre
Federal Jazz Project:  This Joint is Jumpin’!

Federal Jazz Project:  This Joint is Jumpin’!

Marianne Regan

Marianne Regan

By Marianne Regan 

“The Federal Jazz Project” currently running at the San Diego Repertory Theatre is an odd title and doesn’t really describe or do justice to the action taking place on stage.

The show unfolds like an old film noir: a smoky speakeasy, carved out of the tunnels that run below the El Cortez Hotel, is home to shady characters and sultry jazz musicians. The joint is run by Salvatore, “Sally,” who speaks in hep-cat jive and keeps a tight operation, and who just happens to be looking for an opening act.

In comes “the Kidd,” fresh-faced and eager, who introduces his “songbirds” — two talented dames who will keep the money and booze flowing late into the night. One gal is named “San Diego” and the other “Tijuana” and we are then off and running on an adventure that spans all of Southern California and Northern Mexico. Is this a story about two sisters? Or two sister cities — one of which thrives from 1939 up to the present, while the other survives.

The metaphor was not lost on the audience and the many references to local cities and neighborhoods got most of the laughs on opening night. The dialogue careens from staccato-rhymed verse to wise-guy banter to obvious ad-libs. The show can only get better with age, as the actors get more comfortable in their parts and can play off each night’s audience.

Conceived and written by Richard Montoya, the co-founder and lead writer for Culture Clash, the show is collaboration with musician Gilbert Castellanos. Montoya stars as “El Poeta,” or the narrator and introduces us

Richard Montoya

Richard Montoya

to the different characters who inhabit this part of San Diego’s past. Along the way, he exits and enters the action at various times in supporting roles.  His Mexican film director, creator of the anti-war propaganda film, “Mexican Kamikaze Kittens From Hell,” is hysterical. Lorraine Castellanos as sister San Diego plays flamenco guitar and sings with a quiet torch-song intensity.  Claudia Gomez’ hermana Tijuana taps her way across the stage and into the heart of “the Kidd.” The onstage jazz ensemble led by band leader Gil Castellanos moves the action from the past and into the future and back again, because “jazz is timeless” and provides a portal for such time travel. In a twist where “art imitates life,” Sally’s enforcers or “Los Rafas” are played by members of the actual Los Cabrones Motorcycle Club.

In act two, several local musicians are invited onstage to jam with the band.  On opening night, three of these horn players were active military. What a great way to pay tribute to our military town as well as bring attention to these young musicians who clearly play for the love of the music. It brought down the house.

Gilbert Castellanos

Gilbert Castellanos

This final offering from the San Diego Rep’s 37th season might be a hard sell for tourists, but for local San Diegans and south of the border fans, this show is priceless. You might just need to see it twice to appreciate all the nuances, double entendres and quick quips that zing around the stage. For others, the music alone is worth the price of admission and there are long stretches when the jazz musicians let loose and fill the house with exuberant joy. Director Sam Woodhouse hits a home run with the Federal Jazz Project and we only wish it could stay around longer than its scheduled four weeks.

In hep-cat jive, “you’ll blow your top with this show.”

Federal Jazz Project, San Diego Repertory Theatre, through May, Lyceum Stage. For tickets:

Photos by Darin Scott

Marianne Regan is a member of Actor’s Equity and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). She began a career in theater in 1976 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa., and moved to San Diego in 1985 and performed at the North Coast Repertory Theater and for Edyth Pirazzini’s Mission Playhouse.


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