The most heartwarming theatrical romance of the season isn't between any two people, but between a man and the theatre. Not just any man, mind you, but The Man, the father, son, and real live nephew of musical theatre, George M. Cohan. And as resurrected by Jon Peterson for George M. Cohan Tonight! at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the love isn't confined to the stage.
Peterson, a true theatrical fusion reactor, is a consummate choice for singing and dancing through Chip Deffaa's delectable early history of the Broadway musical. A ferocious tapper, a nimble singer, and a ceaselessly ingratiating presence onstage, Peterson so energetically mimics - in body and voice - the thoroughly American Cohan that you might find yourself forgetting James Cagney's classic turn as Cohan in the 1942 biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy.
You won't, however, find yourself forgetting most other theatrical stage bios. Peterson's a definite dynamo, but Deffaa's treatment of Cohan (1878-1942) is strictly by-the-book. The young go-getter, born to an Irish Catholic show-business family, cuts his teeth in vaudeville before taking Broadway by storm in the first decade of the 20th century and inventing musical comedy through sheer determination and force of will. Yes, you've heard all this before.
You've heard all the songs before, too, though when they're this good, any concerns of over-familiarity dissipate in the footlights (which, as employed by lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger, give the show a charming period feel). "Harrigan," "Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway," "Mary's a Grand Old Name," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and "Give My Regards" to Broadway - among nearly three dozen others - are the very definition of timeless. They're shamelessly pizzazzy and unapologetically upbeat, epitomizing the love for country and theatre that fueled all of Cohan's pursuits.
Peterson portrays all of this utterly without corn, without the smirking countenance of a man who knows he's in on the joke. When he takes the stage to sing a defiant "Over There" to rally the troops for World War I, or when he examines his achievements in the climactic "Life's a Funny Proposition," they cease being standards and become personal character songs, defining Cohan's unique personality as any good song in an integrated musical should. (Jukebox musical purveyors, note this subtlety.)
One can't help but wish that Deffaa had taken more chances with his script, offered more hints into the darker sides of Cohan that might have made for a more well-rounded story. (His womanizing and infamous opposition of actors during the 1919 Actors' Equity strike are touched on, but only minimally.) As well, his revisions and additions to Cohan's lyrics prevent the songs from completely standing on their own. And James Morgan's set is a tired, clichéd collection of theatrical trunks overseen by Cohan's slyly smiling face on the scrim that separates Peterson from Sterling Price-McKinney's band.
But Peterson won't allow anything less than a full show to pass his watch, and his work creates a glowing one from Deffaa's run-of-the-mill pieces. There's a certain irony to his uttering Cohan's credo, "The more tricks you learn, the more power you have." Peterson's performance, though, has no tricks in it. It's all his talent. Even that talent can't diminish the workout for the star that Deffaa has created: Portraying the over-caffeinated Cohan does occasionally get Peterson out of breath.
This is most notable after "The Yankee Doodle Boy," a gloriously endless tap extravaganza as expansive in its use of the tiny Irish Rep stage as in its joyful embracing of the audience. Whether the choreography (all Peterson's) is anything like what Cohan did, we'll never know. What is crystal clear is that Peterson's embodiment of Cohan-level stardom transcends Deffaa's earthbound showcase to suggest that the irresistible, irreplaceable personalities on which musical theatre once depended are not extinct creatures after all.
George M. Cohan Tonight!