Playing Jolson is the result of family legacy Stage: Mike Burstyn grew up in Yiddish theater and says that bringing Jolson to life is a matter of practicing his craft.

November 23, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Mike Burstyn, 53, is an internationally known star for all the right reasons.

Burstyn, who is playing Al Jolson in "Jolson: The Musical," coming to the Lyric Opera House tomorrow, isn't exactly an overnight sensation. "It's something you have to apprentice to and learn hands-on," he says of acting.

The New York-born performer, who traveled all over the world with his Yiddish theater-immersed family, didn't spend years in acting school. "It's more a craft than an academic subject," he says.

And Burstyn, who lives half the year in Israel and half in the New York suburb of Scarsdale, wasn't seduced by the notion of a Hollywood lifestyle and indulgently decided the life was for him. "This is what I loved to do. It was in my blood."

He was born into it. Then he grew into it.

His professional career began at 7, with a role in "Der Comediant" in the American Yiddish theater. Acting was the family business. His parents, Lillian Lux and Pesach'ke Burstein, were legends of the Yiddish theater who had their own theater company and knew all the aspects of the business, which they actively passed on to Mike and their other children.

But Burstyn didn't feel the same obligation. His two grown sons, Peter and Adam, are not in the entertainment business.

Burstyn learned acting and the industry from the bottom up: costume designing, scenery, singing, dancing. Performing was a tradition, a way of life, a creative way to make an honest living.

"It gave me the tools to be very versatile," he says.

Entertainment legend Jolson is a personality that Burstyn identifies with more than other famous men he has played in the past, such as P. T. Barnum.

"To bring Al Jolson to life is a job for both an actor and an entertainer," he says. "I'm not doing a Jolson impersonation. I'm trying to bring that human being to life."

Before Burstyn got the part, he went to Jolson's grave at Hillside Cemetery in Los Angeles and said a little prayer. Once he was cast in the role, he prepared to play the show-biz revolutionary who rose to unprecedented stardom from the 1920s to the mid-'30s by watching every Jolson movie (Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" was the first talkie), practicing his inflections, studying his movements and reading Jolson's biography.

"His energy is incredible," he says.

The techniques Burstyn uses in the musical for the public and private Jolson are very different.

And that's a necessity. Jolson, the ultra-ambitious son of Lithuanian immigrants, displayed an electricity and charisma on stage that didn't translate well into his personal life. "The World's Greatest Entertainer" may have been accurately labeled, but he was known for his enormous ego and hunger for adoration. He had a rocky domestic life; his third and last marriage, to dancer Ruby Keeler, ended in divorce. Many people who knew him disliked him, even though they couldn't deny his talent.

Burstyn not only grasps the dimensions of Jolson; he also feels a connection with the singer. Even though Burstyn himself never saw Jolson perform live, he listened to his music all his life. Burstyn's father worked with Jolson in the early '20s. Burstyn's father is a Russian immigrant, and Burstyn is active in the Jewish community, as Jolson was. Burstyn and Jolson also both performed for troops abroad; Burstyn during the Six Day War and the Persian Gulf war, Jolson during World War II.

"Jolson: The Musical," which won an Olivier Award in Britain, is set in the 1920s and '40s and uses the stage and backstage of the American theater world as its context. And Burstyn performs the songs that Jolson made famous, such as "Swanee," "My Mammy" and "Baby Face."

"It's a good, old-fashioned Broadway musical, the way they used to be," Burstyn says.

For Burstyn, "Jolson: The Musical" is a return to the traditional American musical, before British imports and revivals took over. Though he's not overly nostalgic for the old days, he's dismayed by the commodification of Broadway.

"It's a very mediocre scene on Broadway," he says. "It's become an expense-account thing."

Despite all the changes in the entertainment world since Jolson's heyday and Burstyn's childhood debut, Burstyn has moved with the times in his more than 45 years of professional performing. In 1962, he left the Yiddish theater and carved entertainment niches for himself worldwide. He's won two prestigious Israeli film-acting awards. In the Netherlands, he had a television variety program, "The Mike Burstyn Show," from 1978 to 1981. He's also a Broadway veteran whose credits include "The Rothschilds" and "Barnum."

"I've been around so much, people think I'm in my 70s," he says, laughing.

And if you think Burstyn has any intention of heading into an off-stage retirement anytime soon, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

"I would like to have an American television series just to settle down for a few years," he says.

He's developing a pilot right now. It's called "The Spiegelbergs of Nebraska," and it's about a Jewish accountant in 1854 who goes to Nebraska to become a farmer.

Mike Burstyn

What: "Jolson: The Musical"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow-Wednesday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7: 30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $19-$55

Call: 410-481-SEAT

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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