'Jolson' is limp as musical bio Review: Mike Burstyn makes an effort, but aside from the songs and a dash of glamour on stage, this musical doesn't have legs.

November 27, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Theatergoers probably have a right to expect big things from a show about Al Jolson, the singer who billed himself as "the world's greatest entertainer" and who promised audiences, "You ain't heard nothin' yet."

And, in "Jolson: The Musical," now at the Lyric Opera House, lead actor Mike Burstyn delivers an entertaining impersonation of Jolson and especially of his distinctive vocal style.

But musical biographies of entertainers are tricky to pull off. The best -- "Gypsy" and "Funny Girl," for example -- do more than tell the title character's life story; they tell us something about ourselves, whether in the form of cautionary tales, love stories or domestic dramas.

"Jolson" is not in that league. With a book by Francis Essex and Rob Bettinson and direction by Bill Castellino, it doesn't even give a well-rounded picture of the protagonist. When Larry Parks is hired to play the role of Jolson in Columbia Pictures' 1946 movie, "The Jolson Story," we're told it's because, though Jolson is a great singer, he's not a great actor. This musical suffers from much the same problem. Whether the shortcoming lies with the performer or the script, "Jolson: The Musical" does not plumb any depths in the man's character.

Over and over we're told what a selfish egomaniac Jolson was, but we see the side of him that keeps a sister act on salary so they can afford to visit their dying mother in Seattle.

"You're a good man," the guy operating the lights tells him after this scene. "You were never an easy man, but there ain't nobody in this business who ain't richer in his heart for knowing you," his agent, Louis Epstein (Harry A. Winter), gushes near the end.

Even when sparks fly between Jolson and his third wife, Ruby Keeler (played with spunk and strong vocal ability by Donna Lynne Champlin), there's no real tension on stage. The script does neatly circumvent the thorny problem of showing Jolson in black face.

In the second scene, Burstyn starts to put burnt cork on his face, only to wipe it off as he tells producer Lee Shubert (Rob Sheridan) he's through playing his trademark role of Gus, the butler.

But other parts of the book are punctuated with hokey moments NTC -- Epstein giving Jolson a stern lecture, only to discover the entertainer has walked out of the room; or Jolson leading the audience in a sing-along.

The songs, however, are probably the best reason to see "Jolson: The Musical" -- such songs as "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "Swanee" (Jolson's initial failure to recognize the talent of "Swanee" composer George Gershwin is a joke that gets milked throughout the show), "Blue Skies" and, of course, "My Mammy."

Jolson didn't like to share the stage, so few of these songs receive anything resembling a full-blown production number (the major exception is Keeler's delivery of "The U.S.S. Lindy" after intermission).

And though designer James Fouchard's sets start out rather rudimentary, by the time we get to Jolson's penthouse in the second act, there's some real glitz on stage, which reaches its peak in the final scene, set at Radio City.

But great songs and a touch of glamour aren't enough to turn a plodding docudrama into a major musical. Even people who hated Jolson admitted they were awed by his power as a performer. Burstyn makes a noble effort, but "Jolson: The Musical" is too tame to evoke hatred or awe. For the most part, it's nothin' you ain't seen yet.

'Jolson: The Musical'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today and tomorrow; 2 p.m. and 7: 30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $19-$55

Call: 410-481-7328

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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