Jolson and Co - the Musical

Stephen Mo Hannan and Jay Berkow
A King's, Edinburgh and Churchill, Bromley, production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2009)

Production photo

“The closest you will get to the real thing” was the verdict on GMTV and I'm not arguing with that. Allan Stewart inhabits the role so easily and comfortably and with a voice so authentically true to the character that I was not alone in at first believing that he must be miming.

Not so – the voice is his own, and should the show have been simply a rendition of the famous Jolson songs it would have been entertaining enough, but this is also the fascinating story of his life from humble beginnings rising to become “the world's greatest entertainer”, revered by all the celebrities of the period.

Content is taken from a live broadcast – an interview 'Joly' gave from the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre in 1949, just before his death, and contains flashbacks to the salient episodes in his life, the most prominent in his memory being (aged eight) witnessing the death in childbirth of his much loved mother, something which would haunt him for the rest of his life. It is not by chance that his most famous song is My Mammy.

As a teenager he formed an act with his brother Hirsch busking in the street (something which horrified his Jewish Rabbi father), then a period in Vaudeville led to his first big success in La Belle Paree at the Winter Garden, beginning with a bit part but finally starring in the show. It was, however, his role in the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, which brought him world-wide fame.

All these episodes in his life are played out 'front of curtain' in Morgan Large's cleverly designed set, the proscenium set at an angle to accommodate the action in front where his memories are revived, with his two versatile co-stars taking several roles each. Donna Steele expertly manages eight, all four of Jolson's wives as well as a very slinky sensuous interpretation of Mae West including plenty of her wise-cracking style of one-liners. Christopher Howell copes with nine, from old Jewish Poppa to camp film director, and is also the interviewer, and both hard working performers have numerous changes of costumes and character, mostly performed to comic effect.

The audience were totally captivated by Stewart, not only by his singing but also his easy-going style of comedy, engaging members of the audience in comical banter, joking and teasing in true vaudeville style. Like Jolson he knows how to make an audience love him.

'Blacking up', an integral part of Jolson's act was not used in this production, although frequently mentioned. It seems a shame that something so part of his history has to be omitted in case the 'politically correct' brigade take offence, and in Jolson's words, “If they are that easily offended they deserve to be offended”. He loved the black music of New Orleans and wished to be a part of it, the black face making him feel more at home in the role – however – c'est la vie! And with seventeen songs including California here I Come, I'm Sitting on Top of the World, and Swanee we're more than satisfied, but “You ain't heard nothing yet!” and the Winter Garden curtain rises in act two, revealing the eight piece Jolson & Co orchestra, so appreciated that at the end of the show the audience sat firmly in their seats to listen to the music, only filing out when they were sure it was all over. That speaks for itself!

Touring to Plymouth, Newcastle, Llandudno, Norwich, Dundee and Glasgow

John Dixon reviewed this production at Sunderland Empire

Reviewer: Sheila Connor