With a career that spanned nearly five decades and every entertainment medium that existed at the beginning of the 20th century, the moniker attached to Al Jolson, "the world's greatest entertainer," probably wasn't that far off. But the name of the new musical at the Century Center for the Performing Arts is also quite correctly titled, for regardless of how good the Jolson is in Jolson & Company, he just can't do it alone.
And the Jolson is good. Great, even. Stephen Mo Hanan has every vocal and physical mannerism down pat, and from the second he first appears onstage to deliver one of Jolson's most identifiable signature tunes, "Swanee," he grabs you and doesn't let go. The infinitely wide smile, the one of a kind delivery, and an unbreakable connection with the audience all make Hanan the great, untouchable star as soon as the show begins.
But while Hanan is wonderful on his own, he's never better than when paired with the luminous and impossibly adaptable Nancy Anderson. She plays all the women in his life, and plays them wonderfully. Whether she's the dying mother who inspires Jolson to greatness, the supportive woman to whom he eventually gives his heart and his soul, or any of the great stars meets in between, she matches Hanan every step of the way. Their duets, "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along" and "April Showers" are the dramatic and musical highlights of the evening.
Still, the boundless delights that occur when Hanan and Anderson get together are a bit troubling - should Jolson need anyone else? Hanan is remarkable and definitely captures your attention, but the book (which Hanan co-authored with the show's director, Jay Berkow) does not always provide the ideal vehicle for the story of Jolson's life. Jolson being interviewed by Barry Gray (the show's third performer, Robert Ari) does allow the various elements of Jolson's life to become theatrical "memories," thereby establishing the relationship between Jolson's work onstage and his life offstage, but the transitions are not always clear or effective. Each of the book scenes works, and each of the songs works, but getting them all to work together is a far more difficult proposition.
The end of the first act, for example, demonstrates this all too well. After being abandoned by Keeler, Jolson is left to face an auditorium full of big Hollywood players alone. Donning blackface for the first (and only) time in the show, Hanan's performance of "My Mammy" should be a wrenching emotional experience for him and for the audience. But the moment, while effective, takes a bit too long to set up and places its climactic moment too early to send the audience out for the intermission on a wave of anticipation. Hanan nails the song in every way possible, but it's not as spectacular or revelatory as it wants to be, it's just very good. But, even so, it doesn't feel good enough.
Miscalculations like this appear elsewhere in the show, but it's a tribute to Berkow's direction that they can never completely detract from the rest of Jolson & Company; it has too many elements that work too well. The phenomenal talent onstage, the well-written book scenes, and the spectacular songs will help you forgive the moments when Jolson & Company never totally jells. The design choices (James Morgan for sets, Gail Baldoni for costumes, and Annmarie Duggan for lights) support the show well, but the sound design, based on an almost forgotten concept called acoustics, is the most exciting thing; hearing such great songs performed unamplified is a delightful treat.
It's impossible to ignore the energy and dedication of everyone involved to make this show a one-of-a-kind tribute to Al Jolson and a great show of its own. Though neither goal complete succeeds, everyone generally does very well, with Hanan and Anderson doing even better. If the world's greatest entertainer is no longer around, we could not do much better than to have Anderson and Hanan fill the stages of the world in his stead.
Jolson & Company The New Musical