Entertainment legend lives on

Jolson: A Vaudeville

Book by James Racheff and Ted Kociolek
Directed and choreographed by Gary Slavin
JMS Productions
Pelican Studio Theatre
750 Eighth Ave. 6th fl. (212/613-5839)
Equity showcase production (closes Apr. 26)
Review by Elias Stimac

Jolson: A Vaudeville is the story of a celebrity who was famous for doing something that is now considered politically incorrect -- a white man performing in blackface. But the play is so much more than that. It is a history lesson on the progression from live minstrel stage shows to silent films to "talkies"; an homage to various vaudeville styles; a revue of memorable musical selections from a simpler era; a spoof of theatrical conventions; and an indictment of racial stereotyping and prejudice, all packed into 90 or so minutes.

Al Jolson was indeed a star, and his body of work survives as a legacy to his talent and innovation. The script covers everything from Jolson's family life to his early beginning, from his rise to fame to his unceremonious decline. It is also filled with allusions to contemporaries such as George Jessel, Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, and Ruby Keeler (the latter was one of his many wives).

The events are told in a series of clever scenes, each emulating a vaudeville performance format, such as sketches, songs, and soft-shoe numbers. Under the showy but sensitive direction of Gary Slavin (who also incorporated some nifty choreography), the production really captured Jolson's public career and private demons.

The trio of performers were well-cast by Slavin in their respective roles, and delivered on all counts. John Sannuto (who came up with the original concept for the show) embodied the title character with all the bravado and charm one would expect from a man who dubbed himself "The World's Greatest Entertainer." Sannuto wisely interjected moments of vulnerability that added real depth to his characterization. Scott Darby was the effusive emcee and second banana in many of the skits, while Kyrst Hogan proved to be both a shapely showgirl and a versatile actress.

Both Darby and Hogan got a chance to drop their cheery façade and display their mettle in the show's finale, when Sannuto re-enacted the blackface routine for the slightly stunned audience members. The choice by the authors to include this controversial sequence may be considered necessary by historical purists, but questionable in light of today's sophisticated (and multiracial) audiences. Sannuto's vocal work was just as effective without the greasepaint, and the sight of seeing him as Jolson singing "Ol' Man River" was perhaps more pitiable than anything else.

The music itself sounded great, thanks to the singing of the actors and the leadership of musical director Ted Kociolek, who also oversaw the arrangements and continuity. The snappy selections include "Blue Skies," "Sonny Boy," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and of course "Swanee." Ably working alongside Slavin was assistant director-choreographer Janet Bushor. Costumes by Julia Riva (with assistance from Pikke Allen) were perfectly attuned to the theatrical style of the show. Barbara Parisi offered an old-fashioned twist to her lighting scheme with good use of a shuttered spotlight. Scott Spahr provided the onstage-backstage set design.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Elias Stimac