New York Festival 2001:
A Jolson Odyssey
You Gotta Get Back To New York
My impression of the show, Jolson & Co., at the original run was that it was the story of Al Jolson: warts, wives, bluster and blackface. This was not the Jolson of The Jolson Story who justified himself by smiling and saying "Bring up the houselights, I wanna see their faces"; but the driven, incredibly talented son of a Rabbi who turned show business on its ear and reinvented the profession through a half-century career.
The premise of the show is an interview between Barry Gray, of New York radio station WOR, and Al Jolson, which originally took place in October, 1946, just as The Jolson Story was premiering. Artistic license moves the interview about three years later, and a few blocks away, to take place on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre, in 1949.
With a masterful company of just two other performers, Stephen Mo Hanan protrayed events in Jolson's life in flashback form. The death of his mother, his early career with brother Harry Jolson, his days as a minstrel, on Broadway, the movies, radio, and entertaining the troops were all included. We saw Jolson as a real man, dealing with his Jewishness, his ego, his talent, and his failures, all the while being hailed as The Greatest.
Unlike other Jolson shows, this one addressed the question of blackface head on. Jolson told us that he could hide behind the burnt cork mask and do things he could never get away with without the facade. But we saw Jolie, brokenhearted at the end of the first act, bury his emotions behind a wall of makeup and reach for the audience's heart. It was very effective, and appropriate, theatre.
Stephen Mo Hanan, in his portrayal of Al Jolson, was remarkable. To see him on stage, his look, his movement, the way he was infused with the essence of Al Jolson was exemplary. The eyes roll, the mouth curves up in a grin, the hands jut out, and you blink: You are seeing Al Jolson. He sang without a microphone, danced around the stage, and came into the audience on a runway. What film could not capture of Jolson's stage presence, Mo Hanan had down pat. His voice may not be "dead on," but nothing beats a Jolson recording for that.
Here's your chance to judge for yourself. Click on Mo's picture, or this text link, to see Stephen Mo Hanan's Festival Performance.