For those of us not invited to the first half of the 20th century, the almost mesmerizing attraction of singer Al Jolson to his thousands of fans seems an absolute enigma. It's hard to watch the old film clips of "Jolie" in action and not be a bit creeped out by the blackface he often wore, his early take on jazz hands, and the peel-the-paint volume.
Jolson's grandiose and often cloyingly sentimental style played well in the unsophisticated world of burlesque, where he conducted a nonstop, one-man Rolling Stones tour some 90 years ago. Now the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, in cooperation with Tri-C East, is trying to harness that lightning bolt in Jolson & Company. But despite solid work from the three-person cast, this production never truly conveys the rush that a Jolson performance generated.
Born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, Jolson came to America with his family and began to follow in his cantor father's musical footsteps. But he was soon entranced by the seductive sounds of Tin Pan Alley from tunesmiths such as Irving Berlin, Joe Young, and Sam Lewis. Structured as a series of flashbacks by authors Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, the show traces Jolson's 40-year path as the self-described "World's Greatest Performer" through various signature songs ("Swanee," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Sonny Boy," and 13 others), plus his collection of failed marriages.
But in this effort, director Fred Sternfeld, the sultan of lavish musical extravaganzas, feels cramped and uninspired, not pushing his cast or himself to find interesting ways to tell this compelling story.
This is a show that needs an electrifying performance in the pivotal role, and Marc Moritz as Jolson does a thoroughly respectable job. His baritone is powerful and rich, with many of the little curlicues that Jolie incorporated in his vocal stylings. But the neediness and insecurity that drove Jolson's relentless ego are largely missing. The singer's iconic phrase "Wait, wait, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" wasn't a joyful invitation as much as a shrill yelp of pain -- begging the audience to stay, to not leave him as his beloved mother did, dying when he was eight years old.
When Jolson walks down the runway that allows him closer access to his fans, the audience should feel as though it's being stalked. Moritz does the move, but his energy is not sufficiently predatory. And when singing, Moritz's face rarely animates in the urgent way Jolson's did, an exaggerated yet somehow honest mask that could virtually hypnotize any onlooker.
Playing an assortment of supporting roles, George Roth and Kristin Netzband are generally spot-on, quickly creating identifiable characters from Jolson's life. Netzband is particularly amusing as Mae West, telling Jolson -- after he waxes rhapsodic over his mammy -- "I never had a mother; some jerk took advantage of my aunt."
In short, this Jolson is a carefully sketched portrait, when exuberant splashes of tone and texture were what was needed. When dealing with such a larger-than-life person, it's not advisable to color inside the lines.