In George M Cohan: In His Own Words, writer/director Chip Deffaa charts the life of one of the founding fathers of American musical comedy through Cohan’s own songs and interviews, quotes from contemporary critics, and dramatizations of the people in his life. But while there are enjoyable moments and some instructive historical details, the show ultimately lacks dramatic impact.
The main problem is the script, and the trouble can be traced to the title: Cohan was renowned for his plain talking and his "own words" offer limited insights into the man. Reporters are dismissed with "What does it matter who I am as long as I amuse you?," while his autobiography is businesslike to the point of omitting his wives or children (as the stage incarnations indignantly point out). Like Cohan, Deffaa shies away from emotional complexity, in favor of a lot of short, choppy scenes performed in a presentational style -- much of the show is spoken to the audience. Thus a lot of stage time is given over to repetitive scenes of the family troupe performing, but there are only passing references to the complicated relationships with his sister or with his wives and children, his occasional affairs, or indeed the workaholic drive in him. Only in the penultimate scene is Cohan (Jon Peterson) allowed an emotionally nuanced moment in "Life’s A Very Funny Proposition" -- a touching and much-needed revelation of Cohan the man under the noisy exterior of Cohan the theatrical dynamo.
In Peterson, the show had an engaging lead, the embodiment of the Cohan mantra "keep moving" with his enthusiasm, energy and sheer eagerness to please -- a welcome contrast to the generally very static non-musical scenes. His considerable talents as a dancer and musical performer were showcased in signature Cohan numbers "I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway," in which choreographer Justin Boccitto, lighting designer Jason Brandt, and the period costumes (no designer credited) turned a handful of chorus members on a small, bare stage into a credible suggestion of the original. Other performers also made spirited attempts at Cohan standards -- not always an easy task with lyrics that sound simplistic and dated to modern ears. As the rest of the Four Cohans, Peterson was gamely supported by Hal Blankenship as his father, Joan Jaffe as his Mother, and Dawne Swearingen as Josie, convincing as the talented sister who turned down solo offers to stay with the family. Daniel Robert Sullivan brought a slightly anarchic energy to "Forty Five Minutes From Broadway"; Suzanne Dressler delivered a gutsy "Warmest Baby in the Bunch"; and sweet-voiced Jackie Comisar carried off the repetitive lyrics of "Mary’s a Grand Old Name" with commendable poise. Musical director Sterling Price-McKinney’s arrangements and piano accompaniment were well-suited to both the space and the performers.
When Hollywood made a movie of her father’s life (with the co-operation of Cohen), his daughter quipped, "That’s the kind of life dad would have liked to live." In biographical shows there is always a tension between the need to inform and the need to entertain. As an educational experience this show has the immeasurable benefit of historical accuracy, but one wonders whether an attempt to dig deeper behind the façade might not have made for a more dramatically engaging piece of theatre.
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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen