In 2009, in the face of declining audiences and increasing costs for Old Time Music Hall, Rep threw the switch to a newer type of variety. And Jazz Garters 1 felt like a breakthrough. Tightly performed and produced, with a genuinely wide variety of acts (everything from a STOMP-inspired dance number to an improvised song to the old chesnut "Who's On First"), it felt like a revelation.
The subsequent Jazz Garters weren't quite as good - still fairly slick, but often a tad formulaic (Kander and Ebb's "Chicago" score tended to get raided repeatedly, plus there were moments of self-indulgence that dragged). There were also a few moments that just plain were overambitious or wrong-headed (for example, Jazz Garters 3's "Circle of Life" opening got the wrong kind of giggles from the audience with its costumes, which obviously had a lot of effort put into them, and still unfortunately looked like a primary school play). And it tended to slip more and more into the familiar, rather than really innovating.
So, after a year away, and with a new director and musical director, has Jazz Garters managed to get its groove back?
Mostly, alas, no. If anything, this is a more backwards-looking show than any of the previous incarnations - there's a LOT of Music Hall style numbers, plus reprises of four pieces that have been in previous Jazz Garters. There are a couple of moments that really shine and suggest a fresher approach (early in act two, the Casey Bennetto-written song "Liveable" and the Jarrad West-written monologue "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" are modern, clever and presented very well), but elsewhere, it's very familiar material, and there isn't much in the production that freshens it up particularly.
The familiar Jazz Garters set is spiced up a little with a logo in the middle of the proscenium, which is quite stylish, and the use of projections, which ... again, lacks polish - several of the projections get recycled - nobody in the production team apparently thinking it was worth the effort to keep it fresh. There's a couple of songs with re-arranged lyrics, but even then, the changed words aren't particularly funny so much as just ... different from the usual.
Of the performances - there are a couple of reasonable ones in there. Lachlan Ruffy's had his regular praise here before, and he's good again, but ... sticking him in a dress once is funny. Sticking him in a dress twice is just repeating the joke to diminishing returns (although his second-act dress is slinkier). Ian Croker kicks his material out of the park well, but there's not a lot of it and it doesn't really let him use the edgier darker sides of his talent. Kate Rampe is a performer new to me - she gets to show off a strong singing voice in her duet and some good comic timing in her monologue. Brian Kavanaugh is a genuinely charming performer who's running gag could probably profitably run a little bit longer.
I don't want to unnecessarily disparage the production team, all of these people have done good work previously, and undoubtedly will again - but never the less, this is a very backwards-looking show that is only sporadically engaging - going through the motions, and not going through them particularly stylishly. It's a very clunky, flat evening that only rarely gets to do what a variety show is supposed to do - to showcase the performers and to entertain the audience. I don't know whether the production team were timid about messing with a formula that works, or whether they were discouraged from doing so, however what's resulted is a flabby, mediocre show.
EDITED TO ADD: I realise now I missed mentioning Bronte Forrester's performance of Sondheim's tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today", which was also a highlight. Sorry Bronte!