Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Jolson & Co - Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Jolson & Co: The Musical
Reviewed at Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Writter by: Stephen Mo Hanan & Jay Berkow
Directer by: Ed Curtis
Reviewer by: Ian Cain

Hollywood entertainers don’t come much bigger than the legendary Al Jolson. Now, the life and times of this talented, but tyrannical, man provide the subject of a classy new biographical musical, ‘Jolson & Co.’

Allan Stewart gives a phenomenal performance as Jolson that captures every nuance and mannerism of the man perfectly. He is joined on stage by a supporting cast of just two, Donna Steele and Christopher Howell.
Adopting the format of a live radio interview at New York’s Winter Garden Theater, in 1949, the show chronicles the personal and professional life of the man who was affectionately known as ‘Jolie.’

Born Asa Yoelson, the fourth child of Moses Reuben Yoelson and his wife Naomi, in Lithuania at the end of the nineteenth century, the boy who was to become Al Jolson arrived in America at the age of eight.

It didn’t take Jolson long to decide that his future lay in show business and his rise to fame was swift. By 1920, he’d elevated himself into the position of being America’s highest-paid entertainer and he went on to star in the first-ever ‘talkie’, ‘The Jazz Singer’, seven years later. By the time he was 35, Jolson was known as ‘the world’s greatest entertainer’ and became the youngest man in American history to have a theatre named after him.

This production looks behind that legend and it is a poignant, passionate and powerful piece. Stewart portrays a man whose obsession with professional perfection gave way to vanity and pig-headedness; a man who craved the adulation of his fans but who was incapable of demonstrating love to those closest to him. The role demands much from Stewart and he delivers consummately.

Donna Steele is sensational as the women in Jolson’s life. She plays eight different parts and excels in them all, whether she is Jolson’s mother, Mae West or any of Al’s four wives. Her stagecraft is magnificent and she proves herself to be a great character actress. Christopher Howell is equally as successful in the nine roles that he portrays, which range from Al’s strict and overbearing Poppa to an effeminate film director.

It is extremely rare that a critic cannot find fault with anything in a theatre production. However, ‘Jolson & Co’ is one of those longed-for occasions. Nothing has been overlooked in this show: the simple set, designed by Morgan Large; the fantastic costumes, created by Chris Hayward; the gorgeous wigs, designed by Linda McKnight; the superb musical orchestrations by Gary Hind. They all contribute to the overall tone of this wonderful show.

Add to that, the fantastic performances by the stellar cast and just about every one of Jolson’s unforgettable anthems and the result is a technical triumph and a production that provides the best entertainment that money can buy.
Jolson & Co runs at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle until Sat 18th April 09
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