Jolson: The Musical | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Jolson: The Musical


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JOLSON: THE MUSICAL, at the Shubert Theatre. This London-born touring production seeks to dramatize the life of vaudeville star Al Jolson in the snappy, schmaltzy style of one of the corny, wisecracking musicals popular in his heyday. But the artistic and psychological complexities of Jolson--a cantor's son turned blackface crooner whose unabashed emotionalism made him a star during and after World War I--are ill suited to such a kitschy, shallow treatment; the more Jolson teaches us about its subject, the less it satisfies.

A slew of classic songs (including "My Mammy," "Swanee," and a sing-along version of "Carolina in the Morning") almost compensates for Francis Essex and Rob Bettinson's ham-handed script and the tacky production values of this road show, directed by Bill Castellino, with its cheap props and ill-fitting sailor suits for the chorus boys. Mike Burstyn--an American star of Israeli stage and TV--delivers a passable imitation of what one 20s critic called Jolson's "eye-rolling ardor" and ripe baritone; but a brief snippet from the 1946 movie The Jolson Story, showing Larry Parks lip-synching to Jolson's actual voice, is an unfortunate reminder of what an unmatchable singer Jolson was. He deserves better than this. So do we.

--Albert Williams

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