The Dark Side of Jolson

On the face of it, Jolson and Company, the latest biographical musical presented by the Coconut Grove Playhouse, should be dead on arrival. Its subject, Al Jolson, became a star before World War I, died more than a half-century ago, and hardly registers in the contemporary Zeitgeist. He was reputed...
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On the face of it, Jolson and Company, the latest biographical musical presented by the Coconut Grove Playhouse, should be dead on arrival. Its subject, Al Jolson, became a star before World War I, died more than a half-century ago, and hardly registers in the contemporary Zeitgeist. He was reputed to be one of the most dislikable people in show business -- egotistic, insecure, profane, and abusive. His famous blackface routine seems inexcusable. His life was sad. As a narrative concept -- the public success and private torment of an insecure immigrant boy -- it's hardly original.

But add to this dubious mix some stylish staging, outstanding acting and musical ensembles, and a skyrocket of a leading man and whaddaya got? One rock 'em, sock 'em musical entertainment that's so engaging, it overwhelms most of its weaknesses and pretty near blows the roof off the old playhouse. One of Jolson's signature songs was "You Made Me Love You," and that's pretty much my response in a nutshell.

The story takes place on-stage at the Winter Garden Theater in New York in 1949, one year before Jolson's death. A radio talk-show host interviews the performer, whose reminiscences take him back to his early days, which are depicted in brief scenes. In the early 1900s, young Asa Yoelson emigrates from Lithuania with the rest of his family to join his father in Washington, D.C. Soon after arriving, however, his mother dies in childbirth. When Asa starts hanging out on the street, singing for change, his strict father, a prominent cantor, is outraged. But Asa continues his show-biz life, eventually breaking into vaudeville, where he ends up a star before hitting Broadway.

Hugely popular, Asa, now billed as Al Jolson, tries Hollywood, but his broad stage style doesn't work well on film, and his defensive, hostile attitude doesn't win many friends at the studios. Still, he scores with The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie" motion picture, whose plot mirrors his own life. His star dims in the 1930s, but in World War II he finds new vigor, becoming the first major star to tour with USO shows, paying his own way to entertain the troops overseas. While his career endures, his string of marriages, to Ruby Keeler and two others, fails. Not until his 50s does he find peace, with a fourth wife less than half his age.

Veering back and forth from the radio interview to flashback events, Jolson and Company depicts a troubled man who never seems to shake his demons. The contrast between the seemingly happy-go-lucky celebrity and the tortured inner soul allows for some interesting juxtapositions. Acutely aware of his own cultural marginalization as a Jew, Jolson had an early affinity for African-Americans and was one of the earliest white proponents of black culture -- in an era when blacks were strictly segregated. Yet, at the same time, Jolson exploited and debased that culture with the creation of his pie-eyed, addle-headed "darkie," which became his signature role. Singing maudlin songs about a Dixie he never knew and never was, Jolson offered a shtick that was incredibly popular among racist white Southerners who undoubtedly would have shunned him had they known he was Jewish.

Jolson and Company depicts the star's stage persona as his refuge, a kind of sanctuary to which he could retreat when real life overwhelmed him. "April Showers," "Sonny Boy," and "Swanee" may be cornball tunes, but in the context of his private anguish, they gain heightened pathos.

The play is a perfect showcase for its star, Stephen Mo Hanan, who co-wrote it with director Jay Berkow. Hanan, who bears a close resemblance to Jolson, was born to play "the world's greatest entertainer," as Jolson was known throughout his career. Hanan belts out Jolson's golden oldies with complete vocal and physical control. Like Jolson, Hanan is a compact, athletic performer (he grabbed a Tony nomination as one of the original felines in Cats) who throws himself into the role.

In one memorable sequence leading up to the first-act finale, Jolson is distraught to learn that his third wife, Keeler, has walked out on him. Unable to cope, Jolson feverishly applies blackface, preparing to go onstage. The moment he smears makeup across his face, obliterating his features, he sighs with relief. Quickly, Jolson disappears behind the mask, the curly black wig, and the white gloves as his ever-smiling "darkie" emerges. Hanan plays this grotesque transformation masterfully, then belts out the mawkish "My Mammy" with such heart and anguish that it serves as a distillation of Jolson's character -- conflicted, manipulative, off-putting, and nearly impossible to resist.

Hanan is ably backed by a tumultuous cast of supporting characters, all of whom are portrayed by two gifted actors, Robert Ari and Garrett Long. Ari, who turned in fine work as the bewildered allergist in the playhouse's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife earlier this season, here delivers nicely etched cameos -- the New York radio host, a vaudeville manager with a Southern drawl, and the nasty movie mogul Harry Cohn, among a flurry of others.

In yet another string of roles, Long shows an amazing array of talents. As Keeler, she pulls off a dazzling tap-dance riff and nails Keeler's horsey, loping gait. Long lacks Mae West's zaftig physique, but she gets all of West's mannerisms just right. Same with a self-effacing script girl and Jolson's confident last wife, Erle (who in real life died in January).

The company is backed by a fine on-stage musical quartet that manages considerable range and complexity for so small an ensemble, with Joe Brent a standout on violin, guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Director Jay Berkow accentuates the show's theatricality, nimbly shifting the story line back and forth through time. He also makes good use of the playhouse itself, an antique theater from the 1920s that has an old Broadway feel about it.

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