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Jolson & Company

By New York City
Stephen Mo Hanan is Al Jolson(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Stephen Mo Hanan is Al Jolson
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Al Jolson was called "The World's Greatest Entertainer." He was not the world's greatest singer, actor, dancer, or comedian -- but the man could put on a show. How big a star was he? Jolson was America's first genuine pop recording sensation. In his heyday, he was the highest paid entertainer on earth, earning $17,500 per week. He starred in the first "talkie" feature film, The Jazz Singer (1927), which revolutionized the motion picture business. Until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939, Jolson's The Singing Fool (1928) held the record for being the biggest box office hit of all time with a gross of $15.5 million. During World War II, Jolson spearheaded the U.S.O. effort to entertain G.I.'s on the front lines and earned their eternal gratitude. When Columbia Pictures released The Jolson Story in 1946, with Larry Parks in the title role, the aging singer became a major star all over again. The success of the biopic led to a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949).

And that's where Jolson & Company, the new musical by Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, begins. It's 1949 and Jolson (Stephen Mo Hanan) is promoting the movie sequel in a live radio interview with Barry Gray (Robert Ari) on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre (well, actually, the Century Center for the Performing Arts on East 15th Street). During the course of the interview, as Jolson recalls his life, we see unfolding before us the pivotal memories that helped shape an icon -- or, at least, that have helped shape an entertaining musical. We get to hear more than a dozen famous Jolson hits in this show, songs like "Swanee" and "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye."

The book of Jolson & Company is largely based on fact; the performances are largely based on chutzpah. After all, Stephen Mo Hanan has taken on the Herculean task of portraying a 20th century show business titan. How do you play "The World's Greatest Entertainer?" How can you possibly measure up? It's an impossible role, yet the show's co-creator and star does a remarkable job of looking, moving, and sounding like Jolson, even if he ultimately lacks the charisma and the deep baritone voice of Jolson in his later years. Hanan gets considerable help from his writing partner and director, Jay Berkow, who keeps the action moving at an energetic clip.

In the course of constructing their story, Hanan and Berkow elegantly sidestep the issue of Jolson's reputation for singing in blackface. On the one hand, they make Jolson the ultimate crossover artist: He's a Jewish outsider working in the South who falls in love with black music. He couldn't sing it as a white man, but he could (and did) popularize it in the onstage guise of a black man. On the other hand, the show takes the psychological position that Jolson was a famously insecure entertainer who "blacked up" in order to hide himself behind another identity. Jolson & Company plays both of these cards, wisely holding back Hanan's own performance in blackface for dramatic effect until the emotional finale of the first act.

Nor do the creators sidestep the issue of Jolson's megalomania. The man was no Jimmy Stewart. He was often cruel and selfish, and his extraordinary ambition drove his brother away. He had four wives, and treated three of them shabbily. Oh, but he loved the public, and they loved him back; that is the real love story here.

Jolson and company:  Stephen Mo Hanan (center)with Nancy Anderson and Robert Ari(Photo: Carol Roegg)
Jolson and company: Stephen Mo Hanan (center)
with Nancy Anderson and Robert Ari
(Photo: Carol Roegg)
Jolson & Company sufficiently humanizes the man so that we understand what drives him. What drives the play is its superb cast of three. Hanan is the lynchpin, but Robert Ari plays nine different roles, from Jolson's father to movie mogul Harry Cohn. And Nancy Anderson portrays seven different women, including Jolson's mother, all four of his wives, a young girl that got away, and Mae West. The amazing versatility of these performers gives this production a surprising degree of verisimilitude. Ari, looking like a young John Goodman, is an essential component of the piece. Anderson, who received a very much deserved Drama Desk nomination for her performance in Jolson & Company when it was originally staged at the York Theatre in 1999, gives the show its sparkle. As Mae West, she delivers some of the show's funniest lines; and as wife number three, Ruby Keeler, she is heartbreaking. Most impressive, Anderson seems entirely different in every role.

Jolson & Company is not the definitive Al Jolson story, but it's a good, old-fashioned show business bio done with brio. At a time when new musicals often have scores that are lacking in melody and emotion, it's sweet to revisit songs like "You Made Me Love You," "Sonny Boy," and "April Showers."


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