Close on the heels of a new adaptation of The Jazz Singer comes Jolson & Co. by Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, which calls itself a “new musical play” and is the life story of Al Jolson told in monologue, dialogue, and a goodly number of songs from Jolson’s ragbag. It does a pretty fair job of giving you the man, warts and all, and generally avoids sappiness. Directed by Berkow, it is aptly accompanied by Peter Larson and two associates on a variety of instruments.
The format is Jolson’s 1949 radio interview with Barry Gray from the stage of the Winter Garden, a year before Al’s demise. Jolson tells stories about his family and himself, and takes us through his public and private life with anecdotes, vignettes, and songs, some familiar, some forgotten. Nine men’s roles are played by Robert Ari, seven women’s parts by Nancy Anderson, but it is largely Hanan’s show. Bearing a powerful resemblance to Al, he belts, croons, moans, and cavorts to what David Thomson has called “a barrage of sentimental songs of such banality that they could be explained away only by ‘personality.’ ” True, but a few of them are better than that, and Hanan, like Jolson, supplies the personality.
The performance is mostly impersonation but, as such, unbeatable. On top of the Jolson looks, the incarnator has absorbed all the vocal, facial, and kinetic mannerisms as if he had stolen the man’s very soul. This allows us to enjoy him as a mimic regardless of what we may think of the play, which, however, delivers enough to hold its own. Jolson rises, falls, and rises again, as satisfying a pattern as there is, appealing equally to the winner and loser in us.
Nancy Anderson does compellingly by most of her roles, as varied as the moribund Mrs. Yoelson, mother of little Asa (Al’s original, Lithuanian-Jewish name), Mae West (both young and old), and sundry Jolson wives. She doesn’t quite get Ruby Keeler, and she taps better than she sings, but she is saucily or sweetly appealing, especially as the hillbilly last wife, Erle. Ari’s roles are less demanding, and, without attempts at impersonation, he handles them securely. The main problem is the York Theatre, too intimate for Hanan’s oversize performance, which often blasts our eardrums and allows us to get a trifle overfamiliar with the insides of his hugely open mouth.