Glitz, glamour and (a distinct lack of) greasepaint are the trademarks of the new touring production of Jolson & Co which opened at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre this week.
While today’s PC-obsessed society prevents star Allan Stewart portraying the historically accurate sight of Al Jolson “blacking up” (despite Jolson’s well documented opposition to racial discrimination), the show must go on, with Stewart giving a career-defining performance as the man dubbed “the world’s greatest entertainer”.
Opening on the stage of New York’s Winter Garden Theater late on in Jolson’s career, the show flashes back through the man’s life, throwing the spotlight quite literally on key moments in his personal history.
Documenting the death of Lithuanian-born Jolson’s mother, his struggle to rise up through the ranks of the performers that threatened to outshine him and giving insights into his love life and personal problems, the show is always fleet of foot and ready to liven up a sad moment with another song.
Allan Stewart calls on years of panto experience and a love of entertainment to produce a near-flawless Jolson, his enthusiasm shining through as he commands the stage for virtually the entire run time.
Giving able support as the women in Jolson’s life is Donna Steele. Steele plays a total of eight characters, from Jolson’s dying mother to Mae West and a few more in between, with apparent ease, her New York accent getting an airing on a few occasions. It’s hard to believe it’s the same woman each time such is the range she offers.
Christopher Howell is also on hand to provide a number of characters, often playing the straight man to Stewart.
Stewart’s stylish renditions of classics such as Swanee, California Here I Come and Sonny Boy (backed by an eight piece band who hit each note perfectly) had his fans joining in around the theatre, the actor’s trademark audience participation skills meaning the front row were never safe from his gaze.
For a couple of hours Jolson lived again, Stewart holding the crowd in the palm of his hand as the focus of a hugely enjoyable show which put a smile on the faces of a few hundred people before they hurried off into the cold and rain and real life.
Now that’s entertainment.