JOLSON
Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1
Opened 26 October, 1995

An incredible phenomenon occurred at the Victoria Palace: the entire audience of the musical Jolson consistently responded to its star Brian Conley as if he were the man himself, and as if Jolson meant everything to them. Admittedly, this was a partial opening-night crowd, but Rob Bettinson and Paul Jury's second bio-musical collaboration (following the success of Buddy) does, on this showing, seem to have that indefinable "It".

Musical biographies of musical stars are often difficult to pull off, as strong though the music may be their subjects' lives turn out not to be all that dramatically interesting. Al Jolson's life falls into this category: the meat of the story, his family's emigration from Lithuania and young Al running away from home to work in vaudeville, is referred to only in passing. The stage story simply covers two later segments of Jolson's life: stardom in the 1920s, and his comeback in the '40s. Neither episode is imbued with unique, compelling drama.

The show is more than redeemed by a combination of ingredients, First, the cut-and-paste narrative is given a strong element of continuity, particularly in Act One, where the first eight or nine scenes follow naturally upon one another, building a strong foundation for the more selective story-telling that follows. The character of Jolson is a boon as well: capricious egotism and pig-headedness offset by disarming magnetism.

Then there is Conley himself. I recall cordially disliking his last West End appearance in Me And My Girl as being too determinedly chirpy even for that show, but here he shows a fine awareness of when not to milk the comedy, playing the Jewish sardonicism with finesse. His vocal impersonation of Jolson, to these untutored ears, is remarkable, although now and again his phrasing grows a little too playful. In a concession to modern sensibilities, only one scene is played in blackface.

Sally Ann Triplett gives sterling support as Jolson's third wife, Ruby Keeler, although there is never any danger of stealing the spotlight from Jolson and Conley. John Bennett excels in the thankless role of Louis Epstein, Jolie's manager and whipping boy, and John Conroy steals a few scenes as his sardonic dresser. The production values are as big and bold as one would expect, only occasionally tipping into glitz for its own sake. And, naturally, so many instantly recognisable numbers are crammed in that the audience wants to sing along, and is given its chance in the final (frankly overlong) concert segment.

Buddy ran for seven years at the Victoria Palace: I would not be surprised if Jolson enjoys similar longevity. When the catchphrase "You ain't seen nothin' yet" rings out, we know that in fact we have seen it all before, but are having so much fun that it doesn't matter.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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