Appearing in full blackface, Dye performs the persona of Al Jolson as equal parts historical re-enactment and active character. Adopting a period American accent, his impression of Jolson’s speaking and, especially, singing voice are right “on the money” (as he would say). This, in combination with the makeup, creates a remarkably complete illusion that the real Jolson is in the room.
Although he never breaks character or drops his assumed accent during the show, Dye speaks about Jolson in both the first and third person interchangeably, as well as even occasionally talking about himself, Issi Dye, and his family, although never by name and still in the Jolson voice. This multilayered technique seemed vaguely metatheatrical in nature. Yet this unusual and interesting approach never seemed ironic, incoherent or discordant, even though the same “character” was frequently speaking from the perspectives of different individuals. As he says at one point: “I’ve been performing for over 100 years, and I’ve been dead for 50 of them! Not bad, eh?”
While not exactly relating an outright (auto)biography, Dye’s Jolson speaks very little about his early years or even his private life in general, beyond boasting about having had four wives (“and lotsa girlfriends!”) and how beautiful and much younger than him the last one was, and what a fortune he left her. Jolson focuses mostly on discussing his career, doing so in a fairly nonlinear fashion and often as a method of segueing into the next song. The occasional change of jacket or costume hat for military or Broadway-themed parts of the act added to the show in an unobtrusive fashion, as did the many moments of gentle dancing mid-song. Jolson is quick to excuse his rather awkward shuffle as the fault of the decor, quipping “just imagine I’m tap-dancing on this carpet”.
Dye was in fine form, with his audience in the palm of his hand and singing along the whole while. In fact, just about my only complaint for the session was that his backing music was played at an excessive volume for the small room, drowning out the charming audience participation. Dye’s accompanist also served as a useful straight-man and all-purpose whipping boy.
The predominantly elderly Jewish audience were greatly amused by Dye’s patter between songs, laced with a lot of Yiddish humour and endearing wisecracks. Dye’s Jolson engaged in a great deal of banter with his audience; asking questions, having small conversations and even posing for pictures mid-show, never once falling out of character. Even the somewhat annoying questions of a persistent 11-year-old up the front were handled with aplomb by the experienced performer. We even voted by show of hands whether or not to have an interval! Having such a good time, we declined.
The songs themselves were bonza. “California, Here I Come”, “Swanee”, “Baby Face”, “Red, Red Robin” and more were all there, as was the titular “My Mammy”, of course. Although not myself a devotee of the real Al Jolson, I’ve seen enough footage of the man to know that Dye’s personification of the iconic performer’s vocals and mannerisms was excellent. Being a good singer is one thing, but to do so in-character, doing a convincing impression of a well known figure and being able to improvise as well is quite a talent indeed.
My favourite octogenarian companion was also a good barometer of the show’s success. Even though she perhaps didn’t get every nuance of the shtetl shtick, she was singing along to every song and was thoroughly rapt, transported back to her own youth.
Sometimes, in our ceaseless quest to make every new piece of live performance “relevant” and “now”, we sometimes overlook the value of old styles and traditions. Although having clearly reached a wide audience by performing his Jolson show in excess of 600 times, Dye is such a great showman that, although I don’t know if this type of act could fill really big venues these days, I certainly think it deserves to be playing to larger crowds than this.
For anyone who remembers Al Jolson from days gone by, or anyone who simply wants to see a great show evoking some of the most popular music of a bygone era, Issi Dye as Al Jolson is your mensch.
Hakoah Club Bondi & Global Shtetl present
The Jolson Story
Venue: Hakoah Club Bondi
Date/Time: Sunday 20 May 2.30pm
Bookings: Hakoah (02) 9130 3344