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 & 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."