October 17, 2019

Two Yiddishe Boys and a Bissel of Berlin

About a dozen years ago, actor Mike Burstyn auditioned in New York for the role of Al Jolson in the national touring company of the musical “Jolson.” While waiting for a decision, he flew home to Los Angeles and on landing at LAX decided to stop by the nearby Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary and visit the grave of the legendary jazz singer.

Burstyn stopped at the statue of Jolson, which shows the singer kneeling and with arms outstretched as if eternally serenading both his mammy and the cars whizzing by on the 405, for some private conversation.

“I had a brief, if one-sided, chat with Jolson, and promised him that if I got the part, I would do him justice,” Burstyn recalled during an interview. “A few days later, I got the role.”

If the sculptured Jolson was good to Burstyn, Burstyn has been good to Jolson ever since. The beat goes on, and Burstyn is again bringing his idol to life in the musical “Jolson at the Winter Garden,” this time at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

The Winter Garden in New York was the site of some of Jolson’s great Sunday concerts, when actors and musicians from other Broadway shows gathered to hear the master at the height of his career, in the 1920s and ’30s.

It was in 1927 that Jolson made movie history by appearing in the industry’s first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer.” The plot of the path-breaking film resembled Jolson’s own life story as a foreign-born cantor’s son, destined for the same career, who instead became America’s highest-paid and most famous entertainer.

“If you take Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and Elvis Presley and rolled them into one, you’d get an idea of Jolson’s fame in his heyday,” Burstyn enthused.

Burstyn, bursting with energy at 66, was born in New York, the son of Yiddish theater stars Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, and was destined for a show biz career from birth.

He made his theatrical debut, in Yiddish, at age 3, heard his first Jolson record at 11 and was instantly smitten. Like legions of earlier fans, he became an instant Jolson impersonator.

As Burstyn grew up into a professional performer, “I came to channel Jolson to the point where old-timers in the audience were sure I was lip-syncing Jolson’s recorded songs, when actually I was doing the singing,” he said.

In his upcoming show, Burstyn will omit one aspect of the Jolson persona — his blackface routines.

“What once was a century-old theatrical convention — Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Shirley Temple all performed in blackface — would be rightly seen as demeaning stereotyping today,” Burstyn observed.

In a multifaceted career on stage, screen and television, Burstyn has performed in eight languages, and is as well known as an Israel movie star as for his stage roles as Mayer Rothschild, patriarch of the banking family, and gangster Meyer Lansky.

Mike Burstyn poses with an Al Jolson statue at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary. Photo by Cyona Burstyn

The new musical will be a kind of homecoming for Jolson, too. In the decades before Jolson’s death in 1950, he maintained homes in Toluca Lake and Beverly Hills, and later accepted the exalted position of mayor of Encino.

The cast of “Jolson at the Winter Garden” includes actors Jacqueline Bayne, Laura Hodos and Wayne LeGette, a live band and three back-up singers. Bill Castellino is the director, writer and choreographer, and producer Dan Israely (with Zahava Atzmon) was instrumental in getting the show on the road.

Included in the repertoire are such Jolson favorites as “Swanee,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” “Sonny Boy” and, of course, “My Mammy.”

The show will run Sept. 6-25, with the official opening night Sept. 8 and including Wednesday and weekend matinees, at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

For tickets, ranging from $35-$60, call (877) 733-7529 or visit elportaltheatre.com

Also coming up for musical theater fans is “Cabaret” as the season opener for the Reprise Theatre Company at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse.

The John Kander-Fred Ebb classic of nightclubs, Nazis and non-Aryans in early 1930s Berlin runs Sept. 13-25 and includes weekend matinees.

Al Jolson

Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge notes that “Cabaret” is not only a great musical but also serves as a cautionary tale for our time. “It reminds us to pay close attention to what’s going on in our country right now. It’s a show that warns us to keep our eyes open to a very volatile political climate.”

For information and tickets, call (310) 825-2101 or visit reprise.org.
Following a recent film on Sholem Aleichem comes a play exploring the works of another great Yiddish writer in “The Stories of Isaac Leib Peretz,” running Sept. 10-Oct. 9 at the Ruby Theatre at The Complex in Hollywood.

Matt Chait is the storyteller (and producer), with violinist Lior Kaminetsky performing the klezmer-flavored musical score.

Call (323) 960-7780 or visit plays411.com/peretz for more details, and read a more extended article on the play in The Journal’s next issue.