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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
Cohan’s life and music are the subjects of George M currently on stage at the popular dinner/entertainment venue, the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, New York. The music had a brief (for Broadway) run in 1968 with Joel Grey in the title role but is too infrequently revived.
The book by Michael Stewart and John and Fran Pascal is a pretty trite rendering of the man’s life, but recalling the chronology of his career and the generous sample ((25 songs) of his prodigious output, goes a long way in explaining his prominent place in the history of the American musical comedy.
Since we’re now well over a century past his era, few theatergoers, and especially younger ones have little awareness of the man. Those of a certain age (myself included) may remember James Cagney’s Oscar-winning role as Cohan in the 1942 film, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” – most others will draw a blank, though his songs are still familiar, easy to sing and just as patriotic.
The Westchester production, directed and choreographed with verve by Richard Stafford (Jonathan Stahl assisted), wisely concentrates on the music and the dancing, basically tap. The script begins and ends on basically the same note. Cohan was a brash, outspoken, egotistical, incredibly talented young man and ends as a brash, outspoken, egotistical, incredibly talented old man. In between there is familiar backstage drama: a failed marriage, battles with producers, resistance to change, the bane of many performers, especially in the vaudeville era, and finally an emotional fadeout. The strum and drang is kept to a thankful minimum and the music to the max.
John Scherer has the title role and though he initially seems a bit old for the young Cohan, he quickly erases any doubts about that with a non-stop, invigorated performance that includes singing at least half of the songs and dancing like a man possessed.
Stafford’s choreography and Scherer’s fancy foot work will convince anyone who thinks that tap is a limited form of dance to change their minds. When the entire ensemble is onstage tapping away, there’s energy to spare.
Cohan’s life centered not just on the stage, but with his family. Father Jerry (Jim Walton), mother Nellie (Melodie Wolford), and sister Josie (Amanda Trusty) with whom he performed as an act from toddler to adult. Whether his parents will retire or Josie leave the act to begin a family is one of the caveats in the Cohan success story. All three performances are well rounded characterizations including the Cohan ability to sing and dance.
Few other characters register significantly in the story. Laura Schutter is fine as Ethel Levey, Cohan’s first wife, who eventually tires of his obsession with the business and Jeanette Minson is warm and comforting as Agnes Nolan the second Mrs. Cohan, who let him have his way.
Whether it was the fault of sound system or just plain loudness, Carol Schuberg as Madame Grimaldi and especially Katharine Heaton as the diva Fay Templeton came off as screeching harpies. The new-show-each-month policy, now in effect at the theater, seems to have limited the scope of the sets, but designer John Farrell has provided sufficient evidence of life in the theater and Leon Dobkowski’s period costumes colorfully fill in any gaps in the artistic spectrum.
You’re not likely to come away with any profound feeling about Cohan as a man but you’re sure as shooting going to come out humming one or more of his classic tunes – and that’s what he had in mind all along.