Jolson and Co - The Musical
Stephen Mo Hannan and Jay Berkow
A King's, Edinburgh, and Churchill, Bromley, production
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
It is all too rare for a show to be worthy of more than a five star rating but Jolson and Co is one of them.
This is a production that grabs you from the opening number and never lets go until you are clapping along with the band after the cast have left the stage.
Allan Stewart, as Jolson, presents us with a tour de force in the role, which looks back in detail over the entertainer's life. His performance alone warrants this production having life after its present tour finishes as he gives one of the best performances I have seen in a theatre for a long time. But the show does not just rely on him as from casting to set design to direction this show is pure class.
The show opens backstage at the Winter Gardens Theatre, New York, not long before Jolson's death as he takes part in a radio broadcast. His life is told in flashbacks, with Donna Steele (who rose from the chorus line to star status herself as she took over the lead in Thoroughly Modern Millie and recently toured in Shout!) and Christopher Howell making up the three strong cast. However, it is not until the curtain call that a lot of the audience realise how small the cast actually is, so impressive is Steele in her many disguises and she often leaves the stage to a round of applause.
On stage we have a first class seven piece band, who are kept out of sight until just prior to the interval, taking us through seventeen of Jolson's songs.
Stewart, who we know is a brilliant impressionist, is moving in his portrayal of the 20s icon as the show, which pulls few punches, leaves us believing we have seen under the skin of one the world's greatest entertainers. Of course the musical numbers are what counts in a production of this type and Stewart, along with his co-stars, are equally at home with jazz swing numbers or emotional ballads. There are plenty of chances to sing along with the likes of Sonny Boy, Swanee, Babyface, My Mammy and Toot Toot Tootsie but sitting back watching Stewart perform these as Jolson is something not to be missed.
Designer Morgan Large has produced a simple but effective setting that allows scenery to glide quickly into place while the band remains hidden away until required. Director Ed Curtis could ask no more of his cast who bring this show, written by Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, so vividly to life. Head of Wardrobe is Chris Hayward, who has become the Theatre Royal's own regular panto dame.
It is all too rare for you to know that you are watching something special where all the elements of theatre come together seamlessly in front of your very eyes. In recent years I can only recall Guys and Dolls with Ewan McGregor and Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale at the Live Theatre having this effect but now Jolson and Co has joined this very élite list. I cannot recommend this production highly enough - regardless of whether you know who Jolson was or not.
Sheila Connor reviewed this production at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford