Jon Peterson didn't look much like 60-year-old writer/director/producer/performer George M. Cohan (the man's age at the time the play is set), but then again, neither did James Cagney. What Peterson did have is an enjoyable stage presence, enthusiastic voice, and excellent command of the stiff-legged style of dancing Cohan was famous for. These attributes, along with Peterson's ability to spin a good yarn or two (or seven), helped makes for an enjoyable evening.
The play is set backstage at I'd Rather Be Right, George M.'s last Broadway show, circa 1938. Cohan has granted an audience to a young man named Walter (Dave Warren), who wants to write a musical about Cohan's life for his school. Cohan at first grants a perfunctory interview, but bit by bit begins to warm to Walter, as he regales him, and the audience, with tales from life on the various vaudeville circuits from the late 1880s to the beginning of the 20th century. Cohan's anecdotes eventually take the narrative up through his early ventures on Broadway to his partnership with producer Sam Harris and his days of theatrical stardom.
Peterson can tell a good tale, but eventually even too much of a good thing gets tiresome. This becomes especially apparent when Walter begins to press Cohan about his private life (two marriages, one possible illegitimate child, several romantic dalliances), all of which Cohan avoids time and again by giving yet another vaudeville story. The tactic becomes annoying long before he finally capitulates and starts to open up about his personal life.
The real highlight of the evening is the wonderful Cohan tunes sung by Peterson, such as "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Yankee Doodle Boy," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and "Harrigan," among many others. The audience was also treated to the little-known second and third verses of some of these songs, as well as the dialog and patter that Cohan included in the tunes. Walter, who can sing and dance in his own right, assists Cohan with some of these hits, most notably "Harrigan."
High marks also go to the show's choreographer, Justin Bocccitto, who made the most of the small cabaret stage, and to musical director Brett Kristofferson.
While the songs soar, the book unfortunately does not. Several times in the play, author Chip Deffaa leaves out certain bits of information, which while not all that important, are still somewhat glaring. For example, when Cohan mentions his experiences during his first Broadway show, he never names the title of the piece. Or when he talks about his salary in another production, when he was the highest-paid performer on Broadway, he never gives the dollar figure.
(Walter's production, by the way, was in fact performed and became the blueprint for the 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney in the Cohan role. Walter grew up to become the New York Times theatre critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Walter Kerr.)
For all his fame and impact on the theatre world, there have been precious few stage works about George M. Cohan and, even with its limitations, George M. Cohan Tonight: A Vaudeville Life is an enjoyable addition to the Cohan pantheon.
Book: 1/Music: 2/Lyrics: 2
Directing: 1/Musical Direction: 2
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Copyright 2004 Judd Hollander