Three cheers for "1,000 Years of Jazz!," a musical revue with no higher ambition than to entertain. "Jazz" doesn't try to overwhelm the audience with pizazz. Instead, the show, which opened Saturday night at Ford's Theatre, wins you over by subtle force of charm, spirit and energy.
The title of this modestly staged revue is a bit misleading. The 11-member cast -- comprising the venerable Legends of Jazz, the Original Hoofers and vocalist Deborah Woodson -- isn't really a legion of jazz crusaders marching through a millennium of music. New Orleans jazz is their beat, and although swing and modern jazz styles are touched upon, the revue's title refers only to (and slightly exaggerates) the collective age of the cast.
Apart from tenor saxophonist Floyd Turnham, whose versatility extends to elegantly phrased swing lines and gruff Texas-based R&B, the Legends are most comfortable working up traditional jazz and blues tunes. Throughout the show, they convey joie de jazz not unlike the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and, on occasion, aren't above clowning around a little with vocalist Woodson. Her rich, sensuous alto and equally voluptuous body language invite some good-natured fun.
While the Legends provide the show's basic beat, the tap-dancing Original Hoofers splinter that beat into thousands of delightful syncopations. Each hoofer has his own specialty, his own moment in the limelight. Boulevardier Ralph Brown strolls elegantly to the muted accompaniment of "April in Paris"; George Hillman's kicks would do a Rockette proud; Jimmy Slyde glides across the stage as if pulled by an unseen force, and Lon Chaney's (no relation to the actors) "paddle and roll" revealed modern jazz drummers' debt to tap.
The show does have a few problems, though. Sometimes the choice of material seems arbitrary at best; jumping from a '20s classic blues to a '40s jump band tune, for example, was quite a leap. Also, Alton Purnell has an unusually light touch for a boogie-woogie pianist. His rolling eight-to-the-bar patterns were frequently undermiked. Then, too, Woodson was clearly more convincing on the blues and torch numbers than when summoning the finesse required by Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing."
Still, "1,000 Years of Jazz" isn't the sort of show that leaves one in a mood to quibble. Rather, it makes you marvel at the exuberance of the cast and the rejuvenating power of jazz itself. The show will run through Oct. 10 at Ford's Theatre.