It’s a rare jukebox musical that transcends its genre, and “Sarah Sings a Love Story: A Jazz Romance” which is having its world premiere at the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick through March 26, is not one of them. But its music is so fulfilling in its own right that you almost forget about the play’s other shortcomings.
Its central idea is a fine one: to use the music of Sarah Vaughan to reflect the ups and downs of a decades-long relationship, from youthful infatuation to married middle age. And by setting the story in the years of Vaughan’s fame (roughly the 1950s to 1990, the year of Vaughan’s death), playwright Stephanie Berry gives herself an opportunity to address events of Vaughan’s lifetime — most significantly, the Civil Rights Movement and the unrest of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, Berry fails to make the relationship between Elaine (played by Marva Hicks) and Russell (Curtiss Cook) — which is based on the lives of her own brother and sister-in-law — more than a generic love story, and so the music, and not the characters, dominates. But Tamar Ashley Davis, who plays Vaughan, sings with stunning power and style while adding a bit of coy flirtatiousness that, judging from the videos of Vaughan I’ve seen, doesn’t really seem to have been Vaughan’s thing.
A piano/bass/drums combo, under the direction of Nat Adderley Jr., ably backs her, as well as Elaine, who sings often, too, and Russell, who has one showcase number (“My Funny Valentine”).
Elaine and Russell are major jazz fans, and look to Vaughan’s music for different things, at different times. Sometimes it’s escape, sometimes it’s inspiration. Sometimes just to add some beauty to their lives.
Some of the scenes take place in jazz clubs; at other times, Vaughan hovers over the action like an angel. In one particularly clever scene, Elaine and Russell fret over the threat of violence in their Long Island neighborhood while Vaughan, seemingly in another world, sings Gershwin at the White House.
In other scenes, though, Vaughan is not a remote figure. She interacts with Elaine and Russell — and even plays a big role in the climactic scene of their love story — while always retaining her air of show-business glamor.
Davis — whose previous credits include dueting with Prince and appearing on television’s “The Voice” — has the daunting task of making Vaughan seem both human and larger-than-life, and pulls it off. Unlike most actresses, she has the voice and the vocal skills to make it work.
“Sarah Sings a Love Story” is at the Crossroads Theatre Company through March 26; visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
This will be Crossroads’ last production in its current building, which will be razed so a new performing arts center that will house Crossroads and other companies can be built. The new venue is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019; until then, Crossroads will continue producing plays in locations not yet named.