George M! (Review)

Red, white and true blue

Jul 19, 2012 at 8:41 am

George M. Cohan could easily have been mistaken for a whole crowd of people: The American entertainer (1878-1942) was known as a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and producer. By the time he was 30 he was known as “the man who owned Broadway,” and he is the individual who most shaped and established the art form of American musical comedy. Jimmy Cagney portrayed Cohan in the 1942 Academy Award-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy, and he’s the only person who is represented by a statue in Times Square in New York City.

He was a performer for more than 40 years, and the red, white and true blue music he created (he wrote more than 500 songs) is still familiar, especially jaunty, patriotic numbers like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Over There,” as well as the standard anthem of New York theater, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” The product of a show business family, Cohan performed for many years with his parents and his sister, a fact reflected in his famous curtain speech, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”

In 1968, the musical George M! took Cohan’s life and made it into a show — a logical step for a man who spent most of his own career writing and performing in his own productions. You can see a production of the show on board the Showboat Majestic, where it’s winding up a three week run on Sunday. With a book by Michael Stewart and John and Francine Pascal, it skims through Cohan’s life finding ways to offer up about two dozen of his high-spirited numbers. Although the facts of his early hot temper and his workaholic ways that led to the end of his first marriage, the show largely presents Cohan as a trouper who couldn’t refrain from putting his life on hold until “right after the new show” when there was always a new show.

The Showboat has the perfect guy playing Cohan: Matt Dentino, who actually grew up in a family of performers, sings and dances to perfection. He has the effervescent energy to convey the cocky entertainer in a way that you wholly get his personality, both confident to the point of arrogance and talented in the extreme. Alas, the script never digs deep enough to get beneath Cohan’s surface, so it feels incomplete as we span 50 or so years mostly illustrated with his upbeat music. The show ultimately feels like an entertainment, which it is, that aspires to be a biography, which it doesn’t really accomplish.

Some of the down times in Cohan’s life are certainly represented. When his wife Ethel (Rachel Meyer) leaves him a placard describes the moment as “A Sad Scene” (which Cohan amends with an added line, “A Happy Scene,” for balance). The show ends with a tough confrontation when Cohan in 1937 decides to be in a show he did not create, and his old ways seem outdated. He’s in denial until a smart-ass stage manager hits him with some serious criticism, and even then his supportive second wife Agnes (Kate Joos Glasheen) buoys him up by launching into the final number, one more upbeat rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” That’s probably how Cohan would have wanted it, but it feels kind of hollow.

Visually, the show looks good — some fine costumes and choreography suited to the small stage keep it entertaining from start to finish. However, I found myself wishing that I had a bit more insight into Cohan’s psyche and the dynamic of his family, beyond the stereotypes of ambitious, often arrogant showmanship and “gotta-carry-on” performers.

Nevertheless, the Showboat has a spunky cast of 16 singers and dancers who keep the energy up and their tap shoes clicking. Brent Alan Burington does a nice job as Cohan’s father Jerry, and Eileen Earnest gives an animated portrait of sister Josie. Both help shape George’s character, although their interactions with him are quick moments between songs rather than true moments of character development. That’s probably how Cohan would have wanted it — very much in the style of the shows he created, architecture for great tunes with enough story to hang them on. That, in a nutshell, is George M!

GEORGE M!, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions on the Showboat Majestic, continues through July 29.