The now legendary “You ain’t heard nothing yet” rings out reasonably early into the first act of Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow’s Jolson & Co - The Musical, a promise that is fully delivered with punch, panache and downright brilliance.
This biographical musical of Jewish-born Asa Yoelson (Al Jolson) told in flashback, is set on the stage of the Winter Gardens Theatre, New York, with a cast of three, an eight piece on-stage orchestra and packed with Jolson’s memorable catalogue of musical hits including “I’m Sitting On Top of The World”, “California Here I Come”, “You Made Me Love You”, “Swanee”, and the most famous of them all, “My Mammy”.
The production is led by the superlative Allan Stewart in the title role, captivating his audience from his first entrance to his final bow with a marvellous portrayal of the jazz singing Jolson. Stewart’s rapport with the audience is flawless, even when exhibiting the darker side of Jolson’s egotistical, womanising and occasionally violent personality. Without blacking-up, Stewart still manages to express his character’s feelings on racial prejudice with heartfelt compassion and honesty. Stewart comes across as the consummate professional with unending boundless energy and charm.
Supported by Donna Steele, playing all the female roles including Ruby Keeler and her scene-stealing Mae West (in answer to the question “Were you faking it?”, West responds “No, I really was asleep”) and Christopher Howell in all the other male roles including Jolson’s father, brother and various producers in Jolson’s career, these two performers act their cotton socks off playing over twenty different characters with great ease, particularly Steele, giving a beguiling performance. Also, with the entire audience singing and swaying along to every song, there would be no shortage of understudies on this tour!
Under the superb direction of Ed Curtis, effective design by Morgan Large and splendid wigs by Linda McKnight, this is a show for young and old, novice or Jolson fan alike. In today’s turbulent financial and political times, Jolson & Co - The Musical makes you forget about the real world for a couple of hours, puts a smile on your face, a spring in your step and good old-fashioned variety back to the King’s stage. An absolute sheer delight with a truly well-deserved standing ovation - this production would make any Mammy proud!
- David Somerville