Apparently we ain’t heard everything yet. It’s been 65 years since Al Jolson’s death, but the performer still continues to claim attention. Few people today have memories of Jolson live and in person. But larger numbers will recall the 1946 biographical film The Jolson Story, in which Larry Parks starred (with Jolson himself providing vocal tracks on the songs).
The recent Feinstein’s/54 Below one-nighter, “Tony Babino Sings Songs from The Jolson Story,” used the film as a starting point, but actually took a wider look at the entire Jolson phenomenon. The amiable Babino explained that he first saw The Jolson Story at about age 5, when the film was featured as TV’s “Million Dollar Movie.” That viewing set off a lifelong fascination with the star. Babino began mimicking Jolson’s singing soon after seeing the movie. He told the Feinstein’s/54 Below audience that he regularly includes a Jolson song or two in his own singing act even now.
In essence, the show was a pleasantly informal lecture on Jolson’s life and career, with the song list providing entertaining examples of his artistry along the way. Because Babino knows both the Jolson story and The Jolson Story inside and out, there was no shortage of interesting factual tidbits. Who knew, for instance, that it was not “Jolie” but rather William (“Fred Mertz”) Frawley who introduced “My Mammy” (Walter Donaldson, Joe Young, Sam M. Lewis) to the world? Or that George Gershwin’s biggest-selling song is not “Summertime” or “Someone to Watch Over Me,” but, instead, the atypically retro-sounding “Swanee” (lyrics by Irving Caesar)?
Press materials say that Babino’s performance is not an “impersonation,” but what I saw definitely came close. He didn’t dress in period clothing and he certainly didn’t court controversy by appearing in blackface. But he used a good many of the trademark Jolson gestures and vocal effects to shape a successful tribute performance. He stretched his arms wide, as though embracing the world. He rolled his eyes flirtatiously. He completed musical phrases with a dramatic cascade of notes. Spoken passages were inserted into the middle of such songs as “April Showers” (Louis Silvers, Buddy De Sylva) and “My Mammy”—delivered as if by a sentimental ham actor in a 19th-centiury melodrama. And, of course, Babino eventually dropped to one knee to strike the most iconic Jolson pose of all.
Many of the star’s numerous signature songs were included, though “Sonny Boy” (mentioned on the set list) was dropped, apparently because of time constraints. And there was a dollop of lesser-known material, including the fun comic romp “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life” (Billy Merson), a re-creation of a duet between Jolson and Bing Crosby. Game-for-anything pianist and musical director Dave Gross sang the Crosby lines with relish.
Babino noted that The Jolson Story sanitized the star’s biography, and to some extent, he followed suit with this show. As steeped in Jolsonalia as Babino seems to be, he made no mention of the shadow that fell over the film in the decades following its release—justly or not—because of scenes depicting Jolson in blackface. Nor was anything said of the demise of Larry Parks’s film career after he was revealed to have once been a member of the Communist Party. And what of Jolson’s reputation as an egotistical pain? When talking about the breakup of the star’s marriage to Ruby Keeler, Babino did note that Jolson was “kind of an egomaniac.” Kind of? Jolson’s monstrous personality traits are the stuff of legend. In the preface to his 1988 biography, Herbert G. Goldman wrote: “Moody, unpredictable, and sometimes cruel, Al Jolson was one of the most disliked men in the theatrical profession.”
But this show was clearly intended to be less about Jolson the man and more about his musicianship. The best case for the ongoing entertainment value of Jolson’s repertoire came toward the end of the evening when Babino’s sons, Anthony and Steven, made a guest appearance. They teamed with their father and Gross on two numbers. First came “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” (Irving Ceasar, Sammy Lerner, Gerald Marks), which used a popping and playful arrangement based on one that Jolson had utilized for a collaboration with the Mills Brothers. The other selection was Harry Woods’s “When the Red Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along),” featuring a new arrangement that would also have worked handily for Jolson and the Millses.
And the crowd ate it all up. The Babino boys’ guitar and vocal artistry added some bright hues to the musical palette, and their youthful energy gave the show’s last ten minutes a terrific kick. (It’s not that the show had been dull up to that point, but it had seemed somewhat safe and predictable.) I’m not sure that an entire show starring the three Babinos performing Jolson songs would work, but it’s definitely something worth considering.
“Tony Babino Sings Songs from The Jolson Story”
Feinstein’s/54 Below – November 3
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.