nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 20, 2012
Jack's Back is a musical comedy about Jack the Ripper. You read that right: it's a comedy and not even particularly a dark one—it's meant to be a merry yarn, sort of an amalgam of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Oliver! crossed with Some Like It Hot, with just a touch of Sweeney Todd thrown in for good measure. So many antecedents may, like too many cooks, spoil the broth: there are serious tonal problems here, as the show never seems to settle into a particular style.
The basic idea is that a young man named Herbert Wingate has decided to track down Jack the Ripper, in hopes of winning a substantial reward from Her Majesty's government. The reward will enable him to marry his fiancee, Jenny, and bring her to America. Herbert has a personal stake in finding the Ripper, as his mother, Martha, is a prostitute (of some 30 years' standing) who works in the Whitechapel neighborhood where Jack does his killing. Herbert's plan involves disguising himself as lady of the evening, trapping the Ripper, and overpowering him.
It's not an obvious plot to set to music, but book writers Elmer L. Kline, Leo Cardini, and Tom Herman, and composer-lyricist Herman, have done just that. As directed by John Gould Rubin, the overall intention seems to be the kind of irreverent parody that Urinetown and The Drowsy Chaperone traded in. Trouble is, very little of the writing approaches the level of wit of those shows. Consider, for example, this song that introduces our villain, containing this refrain:
'Cause I'm Jack the Ripper, ha ha!
I'm Jack the Ripper, ha ha!
I get my thrill like a hound at the kill,
'Cause I'm Jack the Ripper, ha ha! ha ha! ha ha! ha ha! ha ha!
The authors' rather callous attitude toward the prostitutes particularly troubled me; Martha says, after rebuffing a proposal from the proprietor of the local pub,
Now stop it you two. I'm too old to get married, and too set in my ways. And furthermore, I like my work. You may not remember, but during the Crystal Palace Exhibition I set a record, I did; eighty-four gents in one day, including the special envoy from the Sultan of Turkey.
She then goes on to sing a song entitled "You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks."
Now this is just my opinion, but I couldn't find anything particularly funny about the lives of prostitutes in Victorian London, nor about the murderous inclination of a serial killer. It might succeed as satire, but I don't know what's being satirized.
Gould's staging is abetted by choreography by Bronwen Carson, which is very much in the style of Kathleen Marshall—over-busy and not reflecting any particular period. It's energetic though, and offers a fine showcase for leading man Casey Shane, who proves fleet on his feet in male and female garb as Herbert, and the rest of the ensemble. Arley Tapirian makes a strong impression as Martha, in spite of the material she's been given. Production values, meanwhile, are decidedly not up to the T. Schreiber Studio's usual standard.
All in all, I must confess to being quite disappointed with this production. I think it's great that the folks at Schreiber are stretching themselves by doing a musical, something they rarely attempt. But I'm not sure they're serving their students or their audience with this particular show.