Review: ‘Chetty’s Lullaby’ at Viracocha (**)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: **)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Chetty’s Lullaby” will return to Viracocha for performances on November 15th, 16th and 17th, 2013.)

Early in his career, Chesley (Chet) Henry Baker Jr.  was sometimes referred to as “the best jazz trumpet player in the world.” Well, aficionados have debated that title for half a century. But with his movie star looks and seductive singing voice, he was certainly one of the most charismatic performers of his day.

In the mid 1950s, Baker was riding high in popularity, but, like too many of his colleagues, he was a junkie and the world did not treat junkies well in those days. By the late 1960s and eary ’70s, when much of an entire generation had experimented with all manner of drugs, a reputation for shooting up might add to a performer’s charismatic appeal, but in the 1950s, the public responded with disgust.

By the early 1960s, Baker’s career had taken a dive and his once promising future looked bleak at best.

Philip Watt as Chet Baker (with Doug Lee and Michael Parsons) in "Chetty's Lullaby".
Philip Watt as Chet Baker (with Doug Lee and Michael Parsons) in “Chetty’s Lullaby”.

Such falls from grace are the natural stuff of melodrama, and it is no surprise that various playwrights have attempted to dramatize Baker’s story. Stephan Delbos’ “Chetty’s Lullaby” is a straightforward and predictable melodramatic telling that embraces many cliches.

But it is lifted enormously by the performance of Philip Watt, an experienced professional actor with the requisite movie star good looks and professional chops as a jazz trumpeter. It is Watt’s skilled acting and musicianship which, in places, especially in the second act, transforms this piece into something special.

Also impressive are the acting chops of the jazz musicians who accompany him on stage. Each of them has moments of emotional truth that transcend the script, especially Doug Lee as bassist Augusto Rozetti, who struggles with his English and his ambivalent feelings about his junkie friend. The rest of the company deliver more than adequate, straightforward characterizations.

The play suffers from being mechanically episodic, lacking a musical flow, which would seem to be an essential element for a piece of this sort. Sharon Huff Robinson’s direction is fine when it comes to coaching her musician actors, but pedestrian when it comes to creating flowing stage pictures and the scenes do not slide easily from one to the next.

Chet Baker himself.
Chet Baker himself.

The second act, after the initial exposition, fares much better than the first, with some fine emotional depth being achieved by Mr. Watt.

Musically, the performances are adequate, but Mr. Watt, although a competent professional, does not evoke the extraordinary sweet, breathy tone that made Baker such an icon, except in a few passages. There should be more of those. If he can hit it once, he can hit it twice, and perhaps more care is needed in the selection of solos that Mr. Watt takes on.

The venue of Viracocha, a furniture store in the Mission, seems an unlikely choice for a play, but it turns out to be perfection as a setting for a jazz club. Audiences will be surprised and delighted by what they discover here.

Jazz fans will certainly enjoy this story, the capably performed music, and the overall ambience of the setting.

It should be mentioned that Chet Baker, after the period of this play, disappeared from the scene for many years, but did make a spectacular comeback in the 1970s and 1980s before dying tragically in what was possibly a drug deal gone bad.

If “Chetty’s Lullaby” moves audiences  to rediscover Baker’s later recordings (which are stunningly beautiful), that would be a fine thing.

For further information, click here.

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“Chetty’s Lullaby” by Stephen Delbos presented at Viracocha. Director: Sharon Huff Robinson.

Romano Mussolini/piano: Michael Parsons. Gene Victory/drums: Charlie Knote. Augusto Rozetti/bass: Doug Lee. Salvatore/Prison Guard: Guiliano Nocito. Mario: Irving Schulman. Gary Hannigan/sax: Stuart Ashley. Carol Jackson: Amber Sommerfeld. Gio: Ehsaan Taeb. Halema Baker: Angela Chandra. Chet Baker/trumpet: Philip Watt.

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