Late in the new musical “Jolson & Co.,” movie mogul Harry Cohn proposes turning the legendary jazz singer’s life story into a biopic. Al Jolson goes for the idea — if some of the blemishes (i.e., his many ill-fated romances and marriages) can be magically removed. No problem, says Cohn; the many warts can be telescoped into just one woman. The audience responds knowingly when Cohn, played by Robert Ari, goes on to explain, “This is Hollywood, after all.” All laughs aside, the Columbia Pictures honcho was no fool when it came to fashioning popular entertainment, and “Jolson & Co.” itself could use some judicious telescoping a la Harry Cohn.
Writers Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, who respectively star in and direct this three-actor vehicle, seem intent on telling the whole long, turbulent tale of a cantor’s son from Lithuania who wore black face in order to sing jazz and so became America’s top-earning entertainer in vaudeville, starred in the first talkie, made a huge comeback as a radio star and ultimately saw his life story turned into not one but two movies: “The Jolson Story” and “Jolson Sings Again.” Not magically removed are those troublesome girlfriends and wives, including tapper Ruby Keeler; the World War II USO tour; Jolson’s dying mom back in Lithuania; plus more than a dozen songs that Hanan, in an uncanny re-creation of the immortal performer, gets to sing.
What’s left out is some dramatic focus to give shape to the story. Bringing in too much detail, the authors turn Jolson’s story into a picaresque tale in which every event winds up with equal theatrical weight: In one scene, he meets a chorine, his future wife Ethel; in the next, she is already suffering from chronic alcoholism and begging for a divorce, and so on.
Berkow the director seems entirely content to leave any unifying concept to Berkow the writer. The framing device of a 1949 radio program from the Winter Garden Theater ultimately emerges as just that — a device that interrupts the action rather than effectively develops any dramatic urgency of its own.
In its careful pricking of every wart, however, the musical does expose the scarred, tough hide of an extraordinary star. This is no syrupy backstage story, for at its core beats not the heart but rather the fierce ego of a monstre sacre. Hanan melds perfectly the overweening performing style to the single-mindedness of Jolson’s pursuit. In his opening numbers, Hanan is some act to swallow. He defines hard-sell, and gives not an inch to modern conventions that call for a more easygoing, homogenized approach. In the end, “Jolson & Co.” is all about mutable conventions that ultimately lead audiences to other idols in other venues.
On the subject of today’s new stars, Nancy Anderson performs more than half a dozen roles in “Jolson & Co.,” and she is never less than compelling in any of them. As Ruby Keeler, her knockdown-dragout with Jolson over a bit of stage business is one of the evening’s high points. Needless to say, star status trumps spousal need. Also brilliant are Anderson’s two turns as Mae West, in the musical’s first half when she and Jolson are young vaudevillians, and late in the show as the two of them contemplate retirement. Jolson congratulates her on becoming a movie star, an accomplishment that eluded him despite the success of “The Jazz Singer.” She agrees that millions of people love you in the movies. But unlike the theater, “you’re not in the same room with them.”
Here were two hungry stage animals who achieved the impossible and took the audience home with them every night.