Born in 1878 into a traveling vaudevillian family, George M. Cohan went on to write more than 50 shows and is credited as almost single-handedly inventing the American musical comedy. He was referred to as "perhaps the best beloved and most popular of all American players" and was the first actor to receive the Congressional Medal. He will be forever immortalized by the songs he wrote and performed, such as: "Give My Regards to Broadway," "The Yankee Doodle Boy," "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Over There," "Forty-five Minutes From Broadway," "Mary's a Grand Old Name," and "Harrigan." These songs and many more, along with stories of George M. Cohan's life are all present in this show.
Set in the prop room of an old theatre, the spirit of George M. Cohan shares the story of his life in George M. Cohan Tonight!. Mr. Cohan's success, however great, never seems to overshadow the energetic heart of an Irish song and dance man on the vaudeville circuit, who secured that fame by being "the hardest working man in show business." The set and the actor are charmingly dressed, and the live three-piece band is well led by Richard DeRosa.
Though the lanky Jon Peterson lacks a physical resemblance to George M. Cohan, he aptly captures the energy and style of the man who took the American stage by storm. Mr. Peterson dances with joyful polish and panache, and has a youthful energy that makes his George M. Cohan timeless in age. It is undoubtedly this aspect of his performance that earned the performer a Drama Desk Award Nomination in 2006 for the Off-Broadway premiere of George M. Cohan Tonight! at The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.
The forward placement of Mr. Peterson's singing voice matches well the strident singing style of the time period. It is great on up-tempo songs. On slower ballads he sounds oddly like a male Judy Garland. He duplicates her plaintiff portamento, stylized vibrato and phrasing. He even repeatedly does Judy's trademark tousling of the hair mid-song, and sits down on the edge of the stage for an old-fashioned, misty-eyed closer. It is hard to say if Judy borrowed from George, or Jon borrowed from Judy.
The incredibly tight pacing of the show is handled well by Mr. Peterson as he goes seamlessly from song and dance to dialogue without losing a breath. The 90-minute show is performed without intermission. In order to keep the pace so tight, however, the audience is not given any time to applaud after songs for most of the show, and pauses for laughter are minimal. Since the show barrels on, regardless of how the audience wishes to respond, we are not truly engaged, regardless of how charming the story. George was a consummate performer because he loved his audience. It is only natural that we, his audience, be allowed to love him back. In this production, one appreciates the life of Mr. Cohan and the talents of Mr. Peterson, but is not really invited into that magical prop room in which the story is told.
Chip Deffaa is considered the foremost living authority on Cohan. He has written and directed five shows about Cohan, including George M. Cohan: In His Own Words, The George M. Cohan Revue, Yankee Doodle Boy, George M. Cohan & Co. and George M. Cohan Tonight!. He is also the author of eight books on music and pop culture, and is an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award recipient. He is currently developing a musical, The Seven Little Foys, set to premiere later this year.
George M. Cohan Tonight! will be appearing at The Stage Door Theatre through September 2, 2007, and then again from October 17, 2007 - November 25, 2007. The theatre is located at 8036 W. Sample Road in Coral Springs. The Stage Door Theatre is a not-for-profit professional theatre company hiring local and non-local nonunion actors and actresses. Some shows produced by outside companies may hire local and non-local Equity actors and actresses as well. Their two stages in Coral Springs as well as their 26th Street Theatre location are open year round. For tickets and information on their season, you may contact them by phone at 954-344-7765 or on line at www.stagedoortheatre.com.
Photo: Carol Rosegg