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George M. Cohan Tonight! An Abridged Performance on Screen-
By Elyse Sommer
As Cohan succeeded in bringing lively new shows to Broadway, so the Irish Rep has brought a treasure trove of Irish cultural riches to its home in Chelsea— classic plays, musicals, large casts and small. The caliber of the acting and staging made even modest productions enjoyable.
During live theater's long and painful pause, the Rep has followed Cohan's can-do spirit by inviting its regulars and those new to what they do to experience smartly filmed past performances. The latest of these monthly screened performances is Chip Deffa's tribute to one of the theater's true legends as portrayed by Jon Peterson.
It's been more than a dozen years since I saw George M. Cohan Tonight at the Irish Rep's Main Stage. The way Jon Peterson inhabits the role, even though he no more resembles Cohan than James Cagney did in Yankee Doodle Dandy, is as amazing on screen as it was on stage. His choreography, now as it did then, offsets the slow spots in the time the piece spends on his vaudeville days.
Until we get to Cohan's still durable standards —"Give My Regards To Broadway," "Over There," "Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag,"— those flashing white shoes are enough of a WOW to to hold our attention and have us tapping our own feet.
The pleasures of Peterson's dancing brings me to a major advantage this viewing the show on screen rather than live. The Rep's main stage is a small theater with just 140 seats. As a critic, I usually receive close to the stage seats. However, several friends who sats further back noted that they missed seeing all that terrific footwork. Even a front-row seat might not have seen it at an ideal angle. So, score one for this chance for a perfect view for everyone aboard for this version.
Another plus of the onscreen version is that captions are availble for anyone with hearing problems. I clicked on the captions to make sure they were clear and easy to follow. They were. Too bad that the segment aboout Cohan's non-musical acting failed to note that Ah, Wilderness, in which he played a major role, was by Eugene O'Neill not O'Neal.
To adapt the live production to his return to the role for the screen, Peterson and his crafts team have stayed true to Deffa's script and even managed to capture the essence of the original staging. Therefore, I'm concluding my take on the screened performance by reposting a slightly altered version of that below.
It's not that there haven't been other musical biographies of the showman whose cradle was a backstage trunk, who published songs by the time he was sixteen and who rescued Broadway from its reliance on European operettas with the first book musical, Little Johnny Jones. The 1942 James Cagney biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy and the 1968 George M! with Joel Grey are the ones most likely to come to mind.
Deffaa, whose admiration for Cohan dates back to when he saw the Cagney flick at age nine (the same age that Cohan became part of his family's vaudeville act), has himself written shows about the man "who owned Broadway." The latest pared down version that's been filling every seat at the Irish Rep seems to be the crème de la crème of these homages. The biographical narrative, is interspersed with Cohan's music that still soars thanks to Peterson's triple home run performance. It's a small jewel that sparkles without fancy setting or support players.
While skimming over many details about Cohan's life (especially the warts), there's enough pertinent detail packed into the script to acquaint or reacquaint viewers with this quintessential showman's can-do story. Cohan's journey from his vaudeville circuit days to Broadway is a true superstar saga. He and his partner Sam Harris produced some fifty shows and controlled seven theaters. But what really makes this saga take wing is the music — over thirty songs — and the razzle dazzle music man who makes the rarities as well as the best-known ones tickle the viewers' ears.
Jon Peterson doesn't look like Cohan but neither did James Cagney and Joel Grey. But Pederson does embody the man's brashness and enthusiasm with relaxed charm. As for his singing and dancing (choreographed by him), all I can say is Wow! His buck-and-wing routines leave you breathless with admiration, and are energetic enough so that even the tireless Peterson occasionally gets a bit winded as he segues into his narrator's role.
If the narrative bogs down a bit during some of the lesser known songs, the show regains its pizzazz when Cohan realizes his determination to be a Broadway success and we hear Peterson's terrific renditions of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There."
Deffaa's script also uses "Life's a Funny Proposition" to let Peterson's Cohan ruminate on his life which, for all the money and honors (He was the first performer ever to be awarded a Congressioal Medal) had its dark and heart-wrenching side. James Morgan has designed a suitable trunk-filled set with Sterling Price-McKinney and his excellent combo hidden in back of an imge of the real George M. Cohan is projected. (See Production Notes for current design credits).
After seeing George M. Cohan Tonight next time you pass his statue om Duffy Square you'll want to tip your hat, or tap a foot.
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George M. Cohan Tonight!
An Abridged Performance on Screen
Written by Chip Deffaa
Starring Jon Peterson
Adapted and directed for the screen by Jon Peterson
Originally directed for the stage by Chip Deffaa
Music direction by Michael Lavine
Cinematography by Oliver Peng, Marc Perroquín, Mkhail Kniazev and Jon Waldman
Lighting by Allison Hohman, Michael Kauffman, Oliver Peng, Marc Parroquín, Jon Waldman and Brandon Cheney
Costumes by Peter Sellers and Billy Hipkins
August 17 – August 29, 2021 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on August 17, 2021