Grand old songs with `George M'

An entertaining musical appreciation of Cohan, the `Yankee Doodle Boy'

March 09, 2007|By William Hyder | William Hyder,special to the sun

George M. Cohan (1878-1942) was the son of an Irish-American vaudeville couple. He began performing as a child and grew up to be a phenomenally talented performer, playwright, song writer, director and producer.

Cohan's career is celebrated in George M, a 1968 Broadway musical by Michael Stewart and John and Francine Pascal. The show, a feast of old-time song and dance, is running at Toby's Dinner Theatre through June 10 in a brisk production directed by Toby Orenstein.

Cohan wrote more than 500 songs, but his reputation today rests on a handful of great numbers that appeared between 1904 and 1906 -- "Give My Regards to Broadway," "The Yankee Doodle Boy," "Mary's a Grand Old Name," "Harrigan," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There" (1917). All of these and more are heard in George M.

The show opens in 1901. We see the Four Cohans (including George's younger sister Josie) auditioning their tap-dancing act for the vaudeville mogul E.F. Albee. George, in his early 20s, is desperate to play New York City, but the best Albee will offer is two weeks out of town.

George explodes in anger and tells Albee the Cohans will get to Broadway on their own. They will give up vaudeville and go in for musical comedy.

That incident sets the pattern for the show and illustrates the reality of Cohan's life. He was ambitious, boastful and hot-tempered. He intended to become the king of Broadway, and he had the talent to do it.

In the 18 years that followed, Cohan wrote, produced, directed and often starred in dozens of musicals. His plots often dealt with Irish-Americans, and he loved to display his enthusiastic patriotism.

Cohan insisted on being in charge of everything, and that's what he is in George M. Except for Cohan's father Jerry, the other characters don't get much chance to develop.

The demanding title role is played by Jeffrey Shankle, whose impressive abilities as actor, singer and dancer help the audience overlook Cohan's abrasive personality. The able supporting cast includes Darren McDonnell as a sympathetic Jerry Cohan, Trish Watkins as Nellie Cohan and Jamie Eacker as Josie.

In 1919, the members of Actors Equity called a strike. Cohan, by now more a producer than a performer, and with his hard times far behind him, took management's side. Actors, he declares in George M, should willingly put up with low pay and bad conditions for the joy of being on stage.

For dramatic effect, the script has Cohan bitterly retiring from the theater after the strike. Actually, he continued writing and producing shows into the 1930s as his work fell out of fashion.

In 1937, when Cohan was almost 60 and beginning to think his career was over, he was offered the leading role in a Broadway musical, an affectionate spoof of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal.

The script of George M doesn't name the show or the outstanding talent that created it: I'd Rather Be Right by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. But we are shown Cohan fighting with the stage manager, trying to interpolate his material and being told it was out of date and irrelevant to the plot.

In real life, there was an added complication: Cohan hated Roosevelt. But, being a trouper, he did the show anyway, winning praise for his impersonation of the president. Unfortunately we don't get to see this in George M.

Completing Toby's strong cast are Jenny Fersch as Cohan's first wife, Ethel Levey; Debra Buonaccorsi as his second, Agnes Nolan; Samn Huffer as Cohan's business partner, Sam Harris, and Maria Egler as Broadway star Fay Templeton.

Choreographer Germaine Salsberg keeps the characters tap dancing from start to finish, with occasional nods to the social dances of 1900-1920. It makes for a lively and entertaining evening.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "George M" through June 10. Evenings: Doors open at 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730- 8311 or 800-888-6297.

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