Sounds of Whiteness
Jolson: A Spectacular Musical
"You ain't heard nothin' yet," said Al Jolson. And indeed we hadn't. The vaudeville legend's famous double negative, uttered on a Warner Bros. soundstage during the 1927 filming of The Jazz Singer, effectively ended the reign of the silent film and ushered in the age of the talkie. Jolson himself was able to parlay his Broadway fame into a fairly undistinguished career in the new medium, but by 1940 his unabashedly populist performance style had become passé. It was as though, having heralded the birth of a new beast, he was destined to be swallowed by it. Fortunately, Jolson was also a genius of self-promotion and managed to pad his fall from glory with two slick, silly film autobiographies. Even as other vaudeville stars faded into the expanding Hollywood firmament, Al Jolson continued to cultivate a cult of personality.
In some sense, Jolson, the self-proclaimed "spectacular musical" biography currently touring the hinterlands on its winding way to Broadway, is exactly the sort of tribute Jolson himself would have orchestrated: big, brassy, and bursting with the sort of aimless bluster that is often taken for chutzpah. As with most Broadway shows these days, the narrative bits of Jolson are really just something to fill the space between lavish production numbers and gratuitous tap-dance sequences.
When we first meet Jolson (Mike Burstyn), he is in the process of stealing a song from the Rooney Sisters (Tina Stafford, Helen Holliday, and Caroline Stewart). There is some singing, then some rather exaggerated 1920s banter, then some more singing. Jolson, we learn, is at the height of his Broadway fame and, not coincidentally, the pinnacle of his arrogance. After relieving the poor Rooneys of their hit song, he throws a hissy fit in his dressing room because his long-suffering agent Louis Epstein (Harry Winter) and the theater impresario Lee Shubert (Robert Sheridan) won't sponsor his own one-man revue. Then, in classic prima donna mode, Jolson storms onstage and relieves the regular cast of their show. "There's three more pages of this hokum before I get to sing again," he bellows at the audience. "Do you want to listen to this or do you want to hear me sing?"
In these early scenes, Burstyn does a commendable job of stretching an underwritten part into a modestly involving caricature. His Jolson can trample over the likes of George Gershwin and the Rooney Sisters on his way to the top without seeming a complete schmuck. With a few flourishes and a flash of his raffish smile, Burstyn imbues Jolson with the sort of polished egotism that bespeaks an exaggerated notion of his destiny. And when charisma can't sell this show's often stilted dialogue, there is always another song to sing or another dance to tap. Burstyn puts his pipes to good use on Jolson standards such as "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Sonny Boy," and "Blue Skies" (whether the songs themselves are any good remains a point of debate). The supporting players fill in nicely, as well. Heather Mazur is especially good as Ruby Keeler, Jolson's on-again, off-again squeeze, and although she hasn't much to say, she makes up for lags in conversation with some impressive tapping. Alas that she, Burstyn, and the rest of the cast are not given more to work with.
Jolson co-writers Francis Essex and Rob Bettinson competently outline the turbulent middle years of Jolson's career, including his Broadway period, his move to Hollywood (with one unlikely sequence involving the filming of The Jazz Singer), his concerts for the troops during World War II, and his comeback in the 1940s. They cover a great deal of ground indeed, but in doing so they somehow manage to both strip the story of its dramatic potential and leave out so many facts that the whole affair is laughable as biography. Jolson the entertainer was, for instance, famous for his performances in blackface, which he continued long after gross vaudeville caricature had gone out of vogue with the general public. Although Jolson the musical included a blackface scene in the original British staging, producers cut it from the show's current incarnation for fear of offending American audiences.
Why they imagined it was better to whitewash history than risk provoking debate remains a mystery, but their decision is indicative of a lack of confidence in the audience endemic to this show, and to modern musicals in general. Everything in Jolson, from the maudlin "mammy" scenes showing the star's essentially good heart to the sing-along finale, seems based upon the presupposition that we are too stupid to draw our own conclusions about Jolson's character. Such lightweight fare might have made Jolson the toast of Hollywood, but it leaves us secretly yearning for those halcyon days when stars were seen and not heard.
Jolson runs through July 25 at the Ordway Music Theatre; (651) 224-4222.
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