Friday, April 27, 2007

Jolson & Company

Entertaining ‘JOLSON & COMPANY’ at JCC

Al Jolson, the subject of ‘JOLSON & COMPANY’ now being staged in a joint production of the Jewish Community Center and Cuyahoga Community College-East, was a very talented entertainer, who was also filled with rage and insecurities.

Asa Yoelson was born in Lithuania and came to the United States as a child. Under the name of Al Jolson he had a career that spanned from 1911 to 1940. Often referred to as “the world’s greatest entertainer,” he was known for his black-face makeup, exuberant gestures, operatic-style singing, whistling, and directly addressing his audience. His initial musical training was under the guidance of his father, a well-known New York Jewish cantor. The cantorial sound echoed through Jolson’s vocal chanting in many of his hits.

As youngsters Al and his brother were a minor hit on the vaudeville circuit. A personal rift between the brothers sent Jolie off on his own and resulted in a Broadway career which was unmatched for its length and popularity). One reviewer noted that Jolie had such an "electric" personality, along with the ability to make each member of the audience believe that he was singing only for them, that his audiences often literally “stopped the show” with prolonged applause.

Today, he is probably best remembered for his appearance in 1927 in the first successful movie “talkie", ‘THE JAZZ SINGER.’ In that movie Jolie performed the song "Mammy" in black face.

Jolson’s other hits included "You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do It)", "Rock-A Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody", "Swanee" (songwriter George Gershwin's first success), "April Showers", "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye", "California, Here I Come", "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along,” and "Sonny Boy."

He died at the age of 64 of a massive heart attack while playing cards. Appropriately, Jolson’s supposed last words, taken from one of his most famous songs, were "Boys, I'm going."

‘JOLSON & COMPANY’ is a scrapbook of Al Jolson’s life. It covers his youngest memories including the death of his mother, his career successes and failures, his marriages and divorces. It gives a glimpse of his talent, his egotism and his renowned temper.

The script, by Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow is problematic. The story telling centers on a radio show being narrated by Barry Gray (George Roth). Jolson steps in and out of the broadcast to sing and act out various phases of his personal life and career. The format is an obvious device which wears thin after a while and breaks the story line.

The transitions are weak and the writing often fails to create the needed emotional bridges. There are many pauses that result in a loss of audience attention. For example, when wife Ruby Keeler, who was supposed to perform at a charity event with Jolson, serves him with divorce papers and walks out, what should have been an emotional highlight, turns flat as Jolson takes an extended period of time to put on black face before he sings his signature, “Swanee.” The idea is good, but doesn’t work theatrically.

JCC’s production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, will entertain audiences, especially Jewish audiences. There are enough “Yiddish” allusions to capture the older members who attend JCC productions and know and love Jolson. On the other hand, cutting out some of the extraneous scenes and picking up the pace a little would make the well over 2-hour show, more compelling.

Don’t go to see ‘JOLSON AND COMPANY’ expecting to experience a reincarnation of Al Jolson. Mark Moritz, who plays Jolie, has a good singing voice, and tries hard to incorporate some of Jolson’s signature sounds and moves into his presentation, but he is much too static to become electrifying. He plants his feet, rather than bouncing around the stage. His face lacks the dynamic quality of Jolson’s unbridled stage presence. His sound is appealing, not mesmerizing. Mortiz makes for a very acceptable Jolson-light, but he is not Jolie!

Kristin Netzband, as the female member of the three-person cast, is appealing in multi roles. She is especially delightful as May West and on-target as Ruby Keeler. She sings extremely well and her dancing is excellent. JCC attendees will remember her as Evelyn Nesbit in the company’s production of ‘RAGTIME, THE MUSICAL.’

George Roth, as always, is on target in each of his characterizations. The Times Theatre Tribute Award winner changes voices and facial expressions and makes bodily adjustments to fit each of his nine characters.

Larry Goodpaster and his three piece “orchestra” efficiently back up the performance.

Capsule judgement: ‘JOLSON AND COMPANY’ will be a pleasant trip down memory lane for those who know and appreciate the musical sounds of Al Jolson.