Many patrons of the theatre think Al Jolson was the greatest performer of all time. I once asked the doorman of a theatre if he ever watched what was onstage and he said he stopped going to the theatre when Jolson died. Let’s hope others don’t follow his example, but if you want to get an inkling of why Jolson was so considered, go down to the El Portal Theatre where Mike Burstyn is starring in a show called Jolson at the Winter Garden. Apparently Jolson held court every Sunday until his death at the Winter Garden and “sang ‘em all,” to the joy of his audience. Half the fun of seeing this current production is watching, and hearing, the audience sway, sing, bob their heads, and applaud like crazy.
Actor Burstyn sounds a lot like Jolson and, for my taste, avoids some of the excesses of his singing style. He suggests all Jolson’s vocal mannerisms without hitting us over the head with them. Burstyn does indeed sing them all, 21 to be exact, but he makes room for one woman, the divine Jacqueline Bayne, who stands in for Jolson’s wife Ruby Keeler and sings “You Made Me Love You.”
Burstyn is joined on stage by three terrific talents. Besides the aforementioned Bayne, there are Laura Hodos and Wayne Legette. All three are triple threats who can sing, act, and dance. Director Bill Castellino keeps things moving and keeps Jolson at the center of attention, as Jolson would have demanded – he was famous for his ego. I imagine Burstyn has a good ego too and it is well deserved.
Among the songs Burstyne sings are all the old favorites: “For Me and my Gal,” “Rockabye Your Baby,” “Friday on Saturday Night” (still clever), “ Swanee,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” “California Here I Come,” the tender “Sonny Boy,” “April Showers,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “My Mammy,” and “Sitting on Top of The World.” He got us singing “Nothin’ Could Be Finer than to Be in Carolina.” The show takes you back but reminds us all where it all started. In the 1930s Jolson was the highest paid and most famous entertainer in America. He influenced Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Bob Dylan. He had more than 80 hit records and 16 national tours. He was the first star to entertain the troops in Korea. He starred in the Academy Award-winning film, the first “talkie“ The Jazz Singer.
For some nostalgia and a darn good time catch Jolson at the Winter Garden at the El Portal until Sept. 25.