Thursday, December 05, 2013

Live at the Foxes Den: The Crooning Counselor

In Nat Hentoff’s excellent 1960’s YA novel Jazz Country a white teen-aged aspiring musician resolves to become a civil rights attorney after spending time with African American jazz musicians.  Although sadly out-of-print at this time, one has to wonder of its spirit inspired a new dramedy about a crooning lawyer.  While lacking Hentoff’s depth and authority, there are the odd moments in Michael Kristoff’s Live at the Foxes Den (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Michael Kelly always wanted to be a lawyer, but he is too honest and disorganized to cut it in his big corporate firm.  The only thing saving him is his relationship the senior partner’s daughter.  She is delusional and controlling, but frankly he could probably do worse.  After a long day of getting chewing out, Kelly and his fellow associates stop in at the Foxes Den for a drink or six.  As proprietor Earl Stein, often clarifies: “it’s a lounge, not a bar.”  Acting on instinct, Kelly sings a number with the boozy cocktail pianist and something just clicks.

Soon, he has chucked in his associate’s gig in order to croon full time at the once swanky lounge.  Not soon enough though.  Kelly’s scenes of white collar alienation are a particularly tiresome assemblage of clichés.  Of course, once installed at the lounge, he starts to get involved in the lives of the regulars and staff.  However, his accompanist, the independently wealthy but self-destructive Chad Barrows, is a tough nut to crack.

There is a lot of painting by numbers in Den, but its affection for the Great American Songbook and piano bars like the Foxes Den (kind of like Brandy’s here in the City, but without the rep amongst those in the know) keeps it afloat.  If you dig standards it is hard not to like Den, even if most of the performances are more lounge than jazz.  Be that as it may, composer-co-star Jack Holmes’ original “Pour Me Another Dream” is easily as good as any of the tunes that will be nominated for best song at the upcoming Oscars.  Den also features the appealingly swinging sounds of a jazz quartet led by the tragically late Austin Peralta (with Tony Austin on drums, Ryan McGillicuddy on bass, and Will Artrope on trumpet).

In fact, Holmes is quite strong both musically and dramatically as Barrows.  Jackson Rathbone (perhaps best known for a vampire franchise called something like Dusk or some such) has a strong voice, but his delivery often sounds forced, as if he is never really comfortable with the repertoire.  Still, his golly-gee-ness works well enough for Kelly’s straight scenes.  Playing against type, Bob Gunton has some nice moments as Foxes regular Tony O’Hara.  Unfortunately, if you blink, you might miss Caity Lotz as Susan Hudson, the co-worker Kelly ought to be romancing.

Den can be pretty cringy when its going through the motions (Kelly guilelessly letting the truth slip out on a conference call or haltingly flirting with Hudson), but Holmes often kicks starts its momentum behind the piano or with his acerbic dialogue.  For jazz on the big screen, Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies is your best bet this week, if you can find it, but Den still has good intentions and some nice sounds. Recommended for fans of Michael Feinstein and Steve Tyrell, Live at the Foxes Den opens tomorrow (12/6) in New York at the Quad Cinema.