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Oh mammy, Burstyn does Jolson to a turn!

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Cynthia Citron

By Cynthia Citron

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — His exuberance could suck all the air out of a venue as large as New York’s Winter Garden. His massive ego was on display as he referred to himself in the third person, as Jolie, and as “the WOW.” He bragged that he was the first to break the sound barrier, as he had starred in Hollywood’s first full-length talking movie. Perhaps, had he lived a few decades longer, he might have claimed he invented the Internet.

This man, who for years was celebrated as “the greatest entertainer of all time” by his contemporaries, was jazz singer/ actor/comedian Al Jolson. And anyone who has ever seen him in person, or played one of his records, or seen one of his movies, would immediately recognize the tremendous talent of actor/singer/ dancer Mike Burstyn as he reprises one of Jolson’s many performances at the Winter Garden.

Jolson at the Winter Garden, which opened this week at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, was created and written by Burstyn and director/choreographer Bill Castellino, and for the more than 300 patrons who packed the main auditorium on opening night, it was, literally, a physical reincarnation.

Burstyn has it all down pat: the mushy-mouthed Brooklynese, the bombastic presentation, the little toss of the head at the end of a song as he spreads his arms wide to accept the adulation of the crowd. But most of all, Burstyn has captured the voice. It’s much more than an impersonation; if you listen with your eyes closed, it’s absolutely the real thing.

With his three sidekicks, Jacqueline Bayne, Laura Hodos, and Wayne LeGette, Burstyn begins with corny routines from burlesque, segues into dances from vaudeville, and sings such old-time “hits” as “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on a Saturday Night?” As he acknowledges, “If you stabbed me, I’d bleed shtick.”

And, of course, he sings all of the Jolson classics: “For Me and My Gal,” “Rockabye Your Baby (with a Dixie Melody),” “Swanee,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” “Sonny Boy,” “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “April Showers” (Jolson’s personal favorite), and the show-stopping “Mammy.”

In an emotional digression, he responds with anger to those critics who regard him as racist because he performs in blackface. Blackface, a staple of the minstrel shows of the 19th century, was popular in vaudeville into the early 20th century—up until the 1960s, in fact, when it was finally abandoned during the Civil Rights Movement.

Jolson defends himself by rattling off some of the many other performers who worked in blackface, such as Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, George Jessel, Buster Keaton, and even the young Shirley Temple. He might also have mentioned Gene Kelly, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, and Mae West, among many others.

He also describes an incident wherein a famous black performer was denied service in a segregated restaurant. Jolson took the entertainer by the arm, marched him into the restaurant, sat down with him, ordered lunch, and demanded service. He got it. “They wouldn’t dare throw us out,” he says with satisfaction.

Jolson, who was born in Lithuania, was a staunch American patriot, being the first entertainer to volunteer his services to perform for troops in America and overseas during World War II. In this protracted effort he contracted malaria and lost a lung. Later, at the start of the Korean War, he volunteered again, embarking on a tour of Korea in which he played 42 shows in 16 days. This tour is believed to have cost him his life, as he died shortly after his return from a massive heart attack, and, presumably, exhaustion.

Like Jolson, Burstyn also has an illustrious history of entertaining troops. As a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, he entertained troops both in peacetime and during three wars, and toured with Danny Kaye in a month-long round of army bases and hospitals following the Six-Day War.

The New York-born Burstyn, who began performing when he was seven years old, is the son of Yiddish theater artists Pesach’ke Burstein and Lillian Lux. He celebrated his family and their early 20th century Yiddish theater contemporaries in a documentary called The Komediant, which won an Oscar in Israel. Then, when it opened in New York as a stage review called On Second Avenue, it won him a nomination for a Drama Desk Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

In addition to Jolson, Burstyn has appeared off-Broadway as Mayer Lansky, Mayer Rothschild, P.T. Barnum, and Roy Cohn, among his many other roles. He also recreated his role as Barnum in The Netherlands in the Dutch language, one of eight languages he speaks fluently.

Today Burstyn lives in Los Angeles and visits Israel frequently. And you can be sure that when he drives to and from LAX along the 405, he never forgets to nod to his homeboy, Jolie, quiet at last in his pillared marble monument at Hillside Memorial Park.

Jolson at the Winter Garden will run Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p..m., with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through September 25th at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., in North Hollywood. Call 877-733-7529 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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