Yankee Doodle Dandy
Also see David's review of Beauty of the Father
The 5th Avenue Theatre's world premiere stage musical Yankee Doodle Dandy is a promising but problematic show. It has infallibly tuneful songs, an interesting story, exuberant performances and spiffy production values. As of opening night, however, this unabashed attempt at a crowd-pleaser was still finding its proper running time as well as a proper balance between the personal and professional stories of that incomparable Broadway showman, George M. Cohan.
David Armstrong's book takes the familiar tactic of having a now elderly and waning Cohan revisiting a Broadway theatre he had once owned in 1942 (think Fanny Brice at the top of Funny Girl). Through conversations with a veteran stage doorman, he relives the highs and lows of his impressive career, one that changed Broadway and set the tone for modern American musical theatre. Armstrong shares direction and musical staging of the show with choreographer Jamie Rocco, and a great many of the numbers in the show are engaging, until a certain repetitiveness (and too much tap-dancing) sets in. This is perhaps unavoidable as Cohan essentially wrote the same songs over and over again, with show business and flag-waving the recurring themes. Armstrong wants to show us Cohan the man, flaws and all, but the life story takes a backseat time and again to the massive Cohan songbook. The show starts off with too much book exposition with old George and doesn't really takeoff until the arrival of young George, and, as played by the multi-talented Seán Martin Hingston, it is an arrival that says a star is born.
Hingston, a charismatic triple threat talent if there ever was one, gives us a Cohan who is fiery, funny and a man of mercurial mood shifts. That his great love affair was with the theatre is clearly stated in Armstrong's book, and interpreted as such by Hingston who deftly depicts Cohan's failures in his marriages, and with his daughter Georgette, as well as his one true emotional connection with producer Sam Harris. Hingston dances up a storm with some of the most acrobatic dancing I've seen since Gene Kelly in his heyday, and sings with a brassy, powerful voice which proclaims the title song, "Over There", and "Give My Regards to Broadway", yet also soften enough to a caressing croon for a lullaby version of "Mary" to his baby daughter.
Judy Blazer's [see David's interview with Blazer] bountiful acting skills are hardly challenged by the sketchily defined role of Cohan's first wife Ethel Levey, or later as their grown daughter Georgette, but give her a ballad like the attractive "Pick Up Your Dreams" (fashioned attractively, as are several numbers, by composer/lyricist Albert Evans from a Cohan melody) and she packs an emotional wallop reminiscent of another Judy by the last name of Garland. Blazer also radiates star power in the engagingly staged "So Long, Mary" number which musically was a clear predecessor of Jerry Herman's equally catchy "Hello, Dolly!" (A role Blazer would eminently suit in a Broadway revival, by the way).
As Cohan's parents Jerry and Nellie, Dirk Lumbard and Cynthia Ferrer are solid song and dance talents saddled with underwritten roles. We learn virtually nothing about Cohan's relationship with his showbiz parents. The role of Cohan's sister Josie is developed better, and actress Danette Holden really cooks in her amiably kitschy number "All My Boys," a part of the show's most successfully developed montage of Cohan's hits. Jason Schuchman handles the sympathetic role of Sam Harris well, even though it seems his character has the picture of Dorian Gray in his closet, as he never ages. Seán G. Griffin is totally wasted as stage doorman Lou, though Greg Michael Allen has a fun comic scene as his youthful counterpart.
A real problem of the show is having an older and younger George M. Cohan, played by two actors. Through no fault of actor Richard Sanders, it is very hard to accept that he and Hingston are supposed to be the same character, and Sanders' Cohan is written, until the very last moment of the show, as sad and bitter. It would probably be advisable to have just one George M. in this show, particularly as the show's energy slumps in the moments when we see the last of the effervescent Hingston, until a show-stopping finale.
The spirited ensemble sing and dance with feverish tenacity, and sound good under Richard Gray's musical direction. The new orchestrations by Patti Wyss and Ed Cionek sound grand as played by conductor Bruce Monroe's able orchestra. James Wolk's set design is a brightly colored wonder and remarkably unencumbered, set off attractively by Tom Sturge's lighting design. Gregory A. Poplyk's costumes capture early 20th century Broadway admirably.
Not wanting to spoil anything for those seeing the show here or in its next two stops in Dallas and Atlanta, Armstrong and Rocco have come up with a finish for this show that is so right and so moving that it makes the rest of the long evening pale in comparison. Yankee Doodle Dandy has the right star as George M. Cohan and many of the right ideas. If you've ever read the travails of Funny Girl pre-Broadway, it's not hard to imagine that this show could even be a dandy too, if and when it reaches Broadway.Yankee Doodle Dandy runs through May 16, 2004 at the 5th Avenue Theatre. For further information visit the 5th Avenue on-line at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.