Also see John's preview of Cabaret
In his heyday, singer, comedian and actor Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer." His performing style was brash and extroverted, and he popularized a large number of songs with his sentimental and melodramatic approach. In the 1930s, he was America's most famous and highest paid entertainer. Between 1911 and 1928, Jolson had nine sell-out Winter Garden shows in a row, more than 80 hit records, and 16 national and international tours. He's best remembered today as the star in the first full-length "talking" movie The Jazz Singer. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jolson became the first star to entertain troops overseas during World War II. In 1950 he became the first star to perform for G.I.s in Korea, doing 42 shows in 16 days. He died just weeks after returning to the U.S., partly due to the physical exertion of performing.
Set in the Winter Garden theatre, Jolson at the Winter Garden! is based on one of Al Jolson's popular Sunday afternoon performances. The only problem is that Jolson passed away in 1950, and it is now 1951. His ghost, which still returns to perform over and over again, must be coaxed to accept that it is time to move on. A live eight-piece combo deftly provides accompaniment onstage for Jolson and his trio, comprised of Jacqueline Bayne, Laura Hodos and Wayne LeGette. Regrettably, the talents of the trio are not fully showcased. Perhaps they may have best been used in more carefully thought out cameos such as "You Made Me Love You", which beautifully spotlights the singing and dancing talents of Jacqueline Bayne. The three don't sing or dance nearly as much as one would expect, and the arrangements when they do sing are uninspired. The trio singing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" is actually the only poorly sung piece in the show. The harmonies are off, and having a man play an Andrews Sister is just old hat. Most of the show is Burstyn singing Jolson's songshit after hit.
If one closes their eyes, Burstyn really does sound like Jolson, whether singing or speaking. Some of the keys may be lower than Jolson's, but they fit nicely into Burstyn's baritone voice in a way that enables him to manipulate his sound to be like that of Jolson. The song selection includes "April Showers," "Swanee," "Sitting on Top of the World," "My Mammy," "Rockabye Your Baby" and "Sonny Boy." He skillfully works his way into the audience with his banter, inviting them to sing along to songs such as ""Carolina in the Morning." Those who have been in South Florida theatres know that many of our older audience members do indeed like to sing along (whether you want them to or not!). It was clear that they enjoyed this moment; and the familiarity of some of Jolson's standards they may have heard their parents sing is clearly a sentimental success.
The physicality of Jolson is sorely missing form Burstyn's portrayal, however. Jolson was known as an over-the-top performer who grabbed his audience by the collar with his energy. His exaggerated facial expressions, eye rolls, and rubbery dance moves are part of the package that made him a great seller-of-songs. Within the show we are given a moment when Jolson balks when asked to adapt his song delivery to be more like that of noted crooners Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He clearly states that is not who he is as a performer. Burstyn gives us a bit of Jolson's physicality in the first two songs only, then quickly morphs into the very stand-and-sing performing style with which Jolson did not want to be identified.
Included in the show is a speech by Jolson regarding the misunderstanding that, because he performed in black-face, people thought he may be prejudiced. Quite the contrary, in real life Al Jolson was known for fighting against racial discrimination on Broadway, helping pave the way for many black performers, playwrights and songwriters such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Ethel Waters. Burstyn needs to be more at-risk and raise the stakes of his portrayal of Jolson, for, even in this truly passionate moment, he seems to be playing it safe. Perhaps because of this and the rather thin script, Al Jolson At The Winter Garden! is best described as very pleasant entertainment in search of a needed booster shot of excitement.
Jolson At The Winter Garden! will be appearing at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through March 13, 2011. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre is a 550-seat, nonprofit, community-based Equity regional theatre belonging to the League of Resident Theatres, and the Florida Professional Theatre Association. This theatre employees both local and non-local Equity and non-union cast and crew members. The theatre is located at 1001 Indiantown Rd. (just off of A1A) in Jupiter, Florida. For tickets and complete information on the theatre's offerings, contact them by phone at 561/ 575-2223 or 800/ 445-1666, and online at www.jupitertheatre.org.
*Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
**Designates member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, an independent national labor union.