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A CurtainUp Review
Jolson & Co
By Elyse Sommer
---Our Original Review
Jolson & Co. is an intimate musical perfectly suited to a small Off-Broadway stage while Swing! is a big, splashy Broadway extravaganza. Yet, the two shows have a lot more in common than the fact that they opened on the same night. Both usher in the new millennium with a celebration of the past: Swing! pays tribute to the 30's and 40's big band music and dance styles. Jolson & Co. celebrates the songs identified with one of the outgoing century' s groundbreaking and most popular singers along with the story of his rags to riches success.
Stephen Mo Hanan, who co-wrote and stars in Jolson & Co., is not the first performer to mimic the King of Song's instantly recognizable nasal baritone and frozen smile, splayed hands persona. He's certainly one of the best. But near perfect as his impersonation is, Hanan and co-author-director Jay Berkow have created much more than a look and sound alike concert based on a show business icon. Their always entertaining and often moving portrait of Al Jolson sensibly balances the hills and valleys of his career and personal life with sixteen rousing songs.
The peppy beat of numbers like "Toot, Toot, Tootsie"! and the hokey "April Showers" are indeed the steam in the engine that drives this little show. However, it's the script and Hanan's interpretation of the neediness underlying Jolson's brash egocentricity that give Jolson & Co. bragging rights as a musical play. The powerful Act One finale, when rejected by wife #2, Ruby Keeler, Jolson slowly puts on his black minstrel makeup and then moves down center stage to sing "My Mammy" gives us a deep-down glimpse into his soul -- and, not incidentally, introduces the only "black face" number without a trace of political incorrectness.
Best of all, Hanan, who clearly enjoys his two hours in the limelight as much as Jolson did (his "you ain't heard nothing yet" often keeping audiences in their seats for much longer), shares that limelight with two fine actors. They enrich the story line and propel us from the present to the past.
Robert Ari's chief role is as radio personality Barry Gray who has set up his mike at the side of the stage of the Palace Theater (the play's present -- the year 1949, a year before Jolson's death caused the lights to go off on Broadway and brought Times Square traffic to a halt ). Gray is interviewing Jolson who's at the theater to promote the sequel to the movie version of his life story. This provides an effective framing device to flash back to various phases of the performer's life. (A note for trivia buffs-- Gray's mike is marked WOR, though in 1949 he was still broadcasting under the auspices of WMCA). Throughout the various flashbacks, Ari seamlessly leaves his mike long enough to portray, among others, Jolson's brother, his cantor father, the conservative producer of a minstrel show, a Southern Colonel during Jolson's first visit to the troops, the movie mogul Harry Cohn.
Rounding out the &Co. of the title is Nancy Anderson who is not only adorable looking but a delight to watch. Ms. Anderson plays all three Mrs. Jolsons (two who couldn't compete with his real mistress, the audience, and the last with whom he finally found contentment). In addition she plays the mother whose death when Jolson was just eight accounts for much of the drive and unlovable behavior that contributed to his failed marriages and the dislike of many of his contemporaries. Hanan and Ari at Mama Yoelson's deathbed playing kid versions of themselves could be pretty maudlin stuff but this scene is happily and wisely kept short. Ms. Anderson's most amusing bits are as Mae West. When Jolson visits her during their younger dates he jokes "Why don't I come up some time to see you?" Their song and dance reunion as old friends is as touching as it is funny.
Some readers who, like me, saw the recent musical remake of The Jazz Singer, may ask whether this show will be too much of the same. The answer is a resounding "No.". Sure, you'll hear some of the same songs, but the lead in the Jewish Rep production made no attempt to be Jolson (he was in fact a tenor and, dare we say it, more goyish than Jewish). His story was that of a Jolson-like figure in the play that became Jolson's first movie. Hanan, on the other hand, is Jolson. While I wouldn't want to see the same play twice, I didn't find it the least bit tedious to hear two different renditions of these terrific old songs.
Jolson & Co. is the first offering in the intrepid York Theater Company's 1999-2000 season. Other scheduled goodies include another musical biography, this time of John Latouche, a premiere, and three more of their own very successful version of the Encores staged concerts, Musicals in Muft
Our reviews of the Jewish Rep production of The Jazz Singer and Swing
For everything you've ever wanted to know about Al Jolson: go here
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