Arthur Laurents examines Hollywood during the McCarthy Era in his new play Jolson Sings Again, which is receiving its East Coast premiere at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, Feb. 27-March 28, officially opening March 3.
In this nonmusical play, an idealistic playwright, in L.A. working on his first screenplay, gets caught up in that tumultuous period in history, when actor Larry Parks (who played Al Jolson onscreen) becomes the first star witness to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A small group of friends -- including a film director, a gay writer, and a Jewish couple -- struggle over whether to appear before the Committee, and soon see their dreams and values destroyed.
An accomplished director, playwright, librettist, and screenwriter, Laurents is best known for penning the books to the musicals Gypsy and West Side Story. The recipient of two Tony Awards, he has been inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
Directed by George Street artistic director David Saint, Jolson features Armand Schultz, Robert Petkoff, Betsy Aidem and Jonathan Hadary, who was nominated for a Tony for his role opposite Tyne Daly in the Broadway revival of Gypsy.
Laurents wrote Jolson Sings Again in 1992 and first tried it out at Seattle Rep in 1995. "It was an unfortunate production," Laurents told NJ writer and critic Simon Saltzman. "Only a month before rehearsals were to begin, the producers suddenly pulled out. And so did the stars." The play was hastily recast (and, to Laurents' mind, miscast). NJ director Saint didn't see the Seattle Jolson but became the director of choice while directing another Laurents play, My Good Name at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor this past summer. That show was first workshopped at Seattle Rep, where four George Street staffers saw it. They watched it again at Bay Street, this time under Saint's direction. Laurents recalls, "`What a great re-write you did on the play,' they said. "I hadn't touched it, yet it was a totally different play. [Saint] gave the play what it needed. Now I sit though rehearsals of Jolson Sings Again and am also amazed. David's direction and the cast are responsible for the enormous difference. It's so different and so much more of what I wanted than the production in Seattle. I've also changed my attitude somewhat about that era," he said. The design team for Jolson includes Broadway veterans Theoni V. Aldredge (costume), Howell Binkley (lighting), Jim Youmans (set), David Van Tieghem (sound/composer).
During the run of Jolson a retrospective of the work of Tony- and Academy Award-winning costume designer Aldredge will be on exhibit at the theatre's Cabaret Gallery. Original costume sketches from the last five decades will be displayed publicly for the first time ever, including designs from West Side Story, Dreamgirls, and La Cage aux Folles.
Aldredge has designed costumes for more than 30 films and 200-plus theatre and opera productions, winning an Oscar for "The Great Gatsby" and Tonys for Barnum, Annie, and La Cage. Admission to the gallery is free during daytime box office hours.
The George Street Playhouse is at 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, N.J. Tickets are $22 to $36. Call (732) 246-7717.