REVIEW: Chezzie's Chance

“I want to be the man I can become... by singing.”

“I know the man you'll become... a poor one.”

That old chestnut. You discover, or someone else discovers, that you have a musical gift. Be it singing, or playing an instrument. Suddenly the prospect of a successful career in the arts is genuine, and not just a pipe dream. But will it pay the bills?

You may hear that and think, La La Land all over again. But writer and director Dave Duggan has something else in mind. Originally performed at last year's City Of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival in front of very approving audiences, Chezzie’s Chance returns, along with cast members Conor O'Kane and Orla Mullan, to the Millennium Forum Studio in Derry-Londonderry as once again part of the city’s jazz extravaganza – and the response is equally approving.

It’s a familiar story with a rather novel twist – call it “concert theatre”. Or rather, “jazz club theatre”, with half of the staging area in the small studio set up like a classic jazz club and the other half dedicated to a three-piece band led by guitarist Peter Vail and given the assistance of both trumpet, and dry narration, by actor Keith Lynch, also Mullan's fiancée. With venue, narrative and cast, there is a real family feel to the whole thing.

That's essentially because it's a family story, of mother and son. The son in question is the titular Chezzie, played by O'Kane, the mother is Donna, played by Mullan. He has aspirations of making it as a jazz singer. She, a single mother running a clothes shop, would prefer it if he kept his feet on the ground and did something that guaranteed a steady income.

This amiably light core is all the background we need for O'Kane, Mullan, Lynch and the band to pipe out a series of jazz, blues and soul classics. Songs made famous by the likes of Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine are all heard, each drolly introduced by Lynch (has he considered an alternative career as a DJ, I wonder?) and sung by both O’Kane and Mullan with more than enough energy and elan to get our feet tapping and heads nodding.

Beyond the music, Mullan and O'Kane exhibit light, realistic, low-key humanism. They, Duggan and producer Jonathan Burgess strike just the right balance between the theatre and the music, ensuring we remain suitably invested in Chezzie's desire to win over his worried mother. Like Cora Bissett's What Girls Are Made Of, recently staged at The MAC, Chezzie's Chance is like a battle between a School Of Rock and a School Of Hard Knocks where you hope that both sides, in this case Chezzie and his mother, will reach a pleasing compromise. And what's especially pleasing is that Donna’s conversion (it's a given – I'm seriously not spoiling anything) is not forced in the slightest. Rather, it is a kind of conversational and atmospheric adjustment arising from where Donna and Chezzie are, who they are, what Chezzie wants to be and what Donna wants him to be.

Perhaps the narrative of Chezzie's Chance could have been a little richer - by, say, exploring the effects of social media, and how making a name for yourself isn’t anywhere near enough in a world where everyone can take a picture or tweet an opinion. But dwelling on that would do a disservice to the appealing simplicity of the work. What Duggan, Burgess and company actually have weaved is an audience-pleasing tapestry with a very positive statement about jazz as a vocation and jazz as a past time, creative careerism at its most sincere and inspirational. It's a little treasure of a play.

Simon Fallaha

Chezzie’s Chance ran at Derry-Londonderry’s Millennium Forum, from May 3 to 5, as part of the City Of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival.

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