George M. Cohan was an amazingly gifted writer, composer, and performer. At age 15, he was contributing songs and sketches for his family's vaudeville act, "The Four Cohans." His career had many ups and downs, but over its 64 year span, included authorship of 80 plays, producing credits on 150 others, 1,000 stage appearances and composition of more than 500 songs. He is a Broadway legend and is honored in statue form in Times Square.
George M! is a celebration and tribute to the legend. With a book by Michael Stewart, Francine Pascal, and John Pascal, and songs by Cohan himself (with revisions by his daughter, Mary Cohan), the musical opened on Broadway in 1968 and ran for 435 performances. Joel Grey starred in the title role and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. The show has been appearing across the country ever since, a show that leaves the audience in a patriotic mood due to the theme of some of Cohan's most famous songs ("Yankee Doodle Dandy," "You're a Grand Old Flag").
There is a story here, but not much of one. The show depicts Cohan's rocky rise to fame, emphasizing that his stumbling blocks were his large ego and somewhat abrasive personality. The first act tells of the early years, highlighting less famous but pleasant songs, ending with a big one, "Give My Regards to Broadway." Act two shows how Cohan handled fame, and it includes many songs still remembered today.
The casting of the title role in this show is the key to a production's success - and the CLO has found a good, if not wonderful, George M. Kirby Ward tackles the challenge of erasing James Cagney from memory (George M. Cohan in the widely known film, Yankee Doodle Dandy). Though a fine singer and a very fine dancer, Kirby doesn't have the spark to make his George special. However, along with supporting players Dirk Lumbard (George's father, Jerry Cohan), Karen Prunzik (mother Nellie Cohan), Beverly Ward (sister Josie Cohan), Laurie Gamache (first wife Ethel Levy), and Nancy Lemenager (second wife Agnes Nolan), the Cohan songs are well represented and highly entertaining. The CLO succeeds again by finding extremely talented actors to present musical theatre material. As usual, the ensemble also provides great support, though on opening night they were plagued by several prop mishaps.
The set by John Farrell is excellent and expansive for a one-week show and the costumes are beautiful and appropriate. Staged during the week of July 4th, the show is a patriotic shot in the arm and the flashy production numbers (direction and choreography by Richard Sabellico), which may have seemed a bit overboard at any other time, are huge crowd pleasers.
George M! runs July 2 - July 7 at the Benedum Theatre. Next up for the CLO is Guys and Dolls For tickets and schedule see www.pittsburghCLO.org