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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 30, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In New York: `Jolson & Company’

I‘m the world’s greatest entertainer," says Al

Jolson in an interview with radio personality Barry Gray, a moment,

based on fact, from the stage of the Winter Garden Theater. The interview

that frames "Jolson and Company," a modest biographical musical,

takes place in 1949 shortly before Jolson’s death. Stephen Mo Hanan

portrays the legendary Jolson in this show that includes 16 songs

from the familiar Jolson canon, and as many anecdotes and scenes from

the legendary entertainer’s life on stage and screen. That Hanan plays

the role with the kind of identifiable and certifiable over-the-top

mannerisms and all the strained and nasal vocal characteristics associated

with Jolson will make some devotees kvel and others cringe.

Renowned for his blackface delivery of "Swanee," "Mammy,"

and a host of other songs tailored to fit his passion for the South

and for African Americans with whom he presumably empathized, Jolson

was also an enigma. As a Lithuanian Jew who had experienced discrimination,

Jolson defied his father, an authoritarian autocratic cantor, to become

a street singer. Despite his disagreeable and neurotic personality,

Jolson rather quickly became an icon in the entertainment world during

the first half of the 20th century and an enduring legend of film

for his lead in 1927’s "The Jazz Singer," the industry’s first

"talking picture."

Told in flashback, Jolson’s story bravely includes episodes that show

him as an insecure egotist and an abusive husband to a series of three

wives. Hanan is fortunate to have two fine supporting actors with

him, playing multiple roles. As Hanan aggressively belts out such

famous hits as "California Here I Come," "Rockabye Your

Baby with a Dixie Melody," "I’m Sitting On Top of the World,"

"Sonny Boy," "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye," and "April

Showers," in what appeared to me as a torturously bombastic style,

it was left for Robert Ari to appear with more conservative aplomb

as Gray, Poppa, Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn, and others.

More impressive than either of these men, however, is Nancy Anderson,

who plays all three wives, including the sweet and mistreated Ruby

Keeler. She is even more notably sexsational as Jolson’s long-time

friend and lover, Mae West. As written by Hanan and Jay Berkow, who

also directed, "Jolson and Company" will undoubtedly please

diehard nostalgia fans, but more than likely irritate others who will

find Hanan’s portrayal of Jolson a case of oversell and overkill. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Jolson and Company, Century Center, 111 East 15 Street,

New York. $65. Tele-Charge, 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.


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