Regular patrons of the Off-Broadstreet Theater are used to seeing co-founder, co-producer, and artistic director Robert Thick take on a variety of additional roles: from greeting the audience with a few welcoming words to directing the production to designing the sets to appearing on stage, usually (but not always) in a minor role. In “Jolson & Company,” a musical about the legendary 20th-century singer Al Jolson, Off-Broadstreet’s 187th production, Thick appears in the leading role, which more or less requires him to carry the show. Off-Broad Street’s regular patrons may be used to Thick being able to do just about anything required by the evening’s production, but it seems unlikely that many in the audience were prepared for the quality of his singing (to say nothing of his wonderful white wig and clean-shaven face, which turned him into a stranger).
“Jolson & Company,” by Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, first opened in 1999; Hanan’s performance as Jolson was widely praised, but Thick and his wife and co-conspirator, Julie, decided to prepare for their production by listening to Jolson recordings rather than the original- cast recordings of “Jolson & Company.” Jolson learned to sing before microphones were a standard part of a performance, so that instead of crooning like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, he produced sound — lots of sound — like an opera singer. Most Jolson imitators concentrate on Jolson’s nasal quality and add a few slides, but Thick’s imitation, more a matter of vocal production and style than of exact color, is wonderful. And not once did he leave the audience worrying that he might be about to be in vocal trouble.
Representing the 40-man (and men they usually were) pit orchestra of the time is a single piano, delightfully played by Peter D. Wright, who is also responsible for the musical direction. On the faculty of Westminster Choir college for over 40 years, Wright has also had experience as a cabaret performer and still teaches the history of American music theater at Westminster. He provided most enjoyable, indeed often virtuosic, support for Thick’s singing.
Wright and Thick are the only cast members who have only one role to play. Bill Bunting takes on all the other men. The play is framed as an interview on a New York radio station, and Bunting, as Barry Gray (an actual radio personality), is responsible for that interview and for encouraging the studio audience to respond. But Bunting also covers eight other roles, including Jolson’s father and brother. Heather Diaforli-Day covers all eight female roles, including Jolson’s mother; Mae West, with whom he performed; and various of his four wives, including Ruby Keeler (his third wife, who came to eclipse him professionally), and Erle, his last and much younger wife, whom he married toward the end of his life when she was still a teenager and with whom he apparently had a pleasanter relationship than he did with the other three.
Although Jolson had an enormous ego, he apparently also had a public- spirited side. His parents were from Lithuania, his father a rabbi and cantor who taught his sons to sing but did not approve of their departure for the secular life. His mother died when he was about eight. Jolson often sang in blackface apparently because he loved the music that grew out of the slave culture, and that’s how that music was sung up through the 1930s. But Jolson was evidently a strong supporter of civil rights. During the Second World War he sang for the USO, and if “Jolson & Company” is historically accurate, insisted that the black soldiers who had helped set up his performance space be allowed to sit in the front of the room.
It is likely audiences will be surprised to realize how many of the songs they know. Jolson’s impact and popularity were unprecedented. He earned a great deal of money, and he helped the careers of every composer whose songs he performed — from Irving Berlin to George Gershwin to later composers whose names may be forgotten, but whose songs —”You Made Me Love You,” “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob- Bobbin’ Along” — are not.
Jolson & Company, through Saturday, February 17, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, Musical captures Al Jolson, vaudeville, Broadway, and films of the times. Robert Thick, the theater’s artistic director, is in the leading role. $25.50 to $27.25. 609-466-2766.