Jolson & Co is one of the safest theatre productions I have seen in a long time. It is both a biographical story and a celebration of Al Jolson, known in his time as ‘the world’s greatest entertainer.’ The musical is nothing more than an excuse for three actors and a band to come together and perform some of the catchiest songs of the 20th century. Depending on one’s feelings towards the songs, this is either a strength or a weakness.
Set in the Winter Garden, one of Broadway’s premiere theatres, the production is an extended flashback, showing moments from Jolson’s life as he gives a ‘live’ interview for radio. Simple questions from the interviewer lead Jolson to relive important moments from his life, punctuating each segment with one of his signature songs.
The most frustrating thing about the piece is that it hints at a much more entertaining, and darker, story. Jolson’s life is rife for a theatrical retelling, and there are short gasps of good scenes that show what this production could have been. Jolson may have been excellent onstage, but in real life he was an addict, a wife-beater, a gambler and an egotist. Though these are hinted at, the piece is much more interested in Jolson’s stage persona.
And executing that persona is Allan Stewart, who frankly makes a marvellous Jolson. Stewart uses Jolson’s speech patterns within the songs but is far more interested in playing a character than in giving an impersonation. He comes across as warm and in constant need of attention, and he has a lot of fun with audience-interaction throughout the piece. He is also able to switch back and forth between the dramatic scenes and the songs with ease. It is an excellent performance that is steeped in respect.
Donna Steele and Christopher Howell are equally as good, playing the ensemble of characters. Steele is the more successful, playing both comedic and dramatic characters with flare. Her Mae West is one of the funniest elements of the evening, and her depiction of Jolson’s wives is heartbreaking. Howell also has some good moments, playing such characters as Jolson’s father and brother. He also keeps up with Stewart during the interview sections, making those segments feel immediate.
Much seems to have been made about this production’s refusal to have Stewart wear blackface make-up, a signature look of Jolson’s. As this production is more intent on celebrating the songs and giving Stewart carte blanche with the audience, this was the correct choice. And as the production is more intent on nostalgia than dramatic tension or examination, the blackface would have served more as a distraction. It is also further evidence of the potential of a more complete look at Jolson’s life.
Jolson & Co may be a piece of tame theatre, but it is also an energetic salute to one of America’s greatest personalities. Anyone interested in a revealing bio on Al Jolson will be disappointed. However, anyone looking for a good night out and solid performances of Jolson’s songs will be entertained.
*Originally appeared on Onstage Scotland.
From May 18 2009 to May 23 2009 at King’s Theatre, Glasgow.