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A CurtainUp Review
George M. Cohan Tonight!
By Elyse Sommer
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 any more like Cohan than Cagney and Joel Grey did, but he embodies 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," "Mary's a Grand Old Name," "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 a scrim on which an image of the real George M. Cohan is projected.
After seeing George M. Cohan Tonight you'll want to tip your hat to that satue of Cohan in Times Square.
A footnote: The actress who played Cohan's beloved sister Josie in the Jimmy Cagney movie was Cagney's own sister Jeanne and the voice you hear welcoming you to the Irish Rep and asking you to turn off your cell phone is that of Jennie Cohan Ross, George M. Cohan's great granddaughter.
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