By Michael Hillyer
Does anyone still remember George M. Cohan? It depends on who you ask. Members of my generation, whose parents were young during World War II, have probably at some point seen the Michael Curtiz film “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” starring James Cagney – for years, it played on television every July 4th – and are also likely to be familiar with a handful of the roughly 1,500 songs Cohan wrote and published in his lifetime: “Over There,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Give My Regards To Broadway.” We learned these songs at school and at home when we were young, they were an early part of our culture. The Tik Tok generation? not so much. So, just who was George M. Cohan, and why was he important? Why is there a large statue of him in Times Square? How was he “the man who owned Broadway?” GEORGE M. COHAN TONIGHT, streaming online through August 29th at IrishRep.org, is here to answer those questions and tell us much more about this peerless Irish-American Broadway icon, who had great success over a long career as an actor, singer, dancer, director, playwright, composer, producer and even theatre-owner. At one point, George M. Cohan owned seven Broadway theaters and had his own shows running in five of them; this is an achievement unlikely to ever be equaled.
GEORGE M. COHAN, TONIGHT! was originally staged by author Chip Deffaa at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2006, which netted a Drama League Award nomination for its star, Jon Peterson. This present iteration has been filmed in an abridged video format, for digital distribution and inclusion in the Irish Rep’s online catalogue of streaming theatre productions. Directed here by Mr. Peterson with a cleverly understated script by Mr. Deffaa, GEORGE M. COHAN, TONIGHT! is essentially a one-man show mounted on the Rep’s small stage and in various parts of the theatre. The evening has been imagined as a nocturnal visit to the boards of the Irish Rep by the ghost of George M. Cohan, who has been slighted recently by a dismissive notice in the New York Post describing a similar, recent “appearance” at the New Amsterdam Theatre, and he has roused himself from eternal slumber to set the record straight. It becomes clear immediately that Mr. Cohan misses performing and is glad to be back on a stage, as he right away launches into “Hello, Broadway” in the empty theatre, which segues into “Give My Regards To Broadway,” (delivered by Mr. Peterson with a dazzling, extended tap break and a healthy dose of leading man panache) then works his way through the modest portion of the vast Cohan song catalogue which serves as the evening’s musical score.
It is doubtful that anyone watching this show for the first time would be familiar with much of the music beforehand, as it is mostly comprised of lesser-known Cohan tunes, but hearing them sung in the present is a testament not just to their staying power, but to their enormous popularity in the first place. The simple rhyme schemes may date the lyrics, but they are surprisingly clever at times, even cheeky, and you can see how audiences would have loved that. Under the snappy musical direction of the talented Michael Lavine, who is also on piano, the excellent musicians (Rob Garcia on drums, Brian Nalepka on bass and Andy Stein on violin) provide Mr. Peterson with solid orchestral support. Here is your chance to hear some old chestnuts you’ve probably never even heard of: “Musical Moon,” “My Father Told Me,” “Forty-five Minutes From Broadway,” “I’m Saving Up To Buy A Home For Mother,” and my personal favorite, “The Hinkey-Dee.” (Don’t ask. You should see and hear it for yourself, it is pretty funny.)
It is a credit to Jon Peterson that his performance never strays into mimicry, either of Cagney or an attempt to imagine George M. Cohan’s actual vocal delivery and playing style. Mr. Peterson persuasively captures the essential qualities of Cohan without attempting to “channel” him as a character: optimistic, determined, patriotic, brash, smart-alecky, often sentimental. Thank goodness Mr. Peterson is a wide-open actor, emotionally, and is able to express the full range of feeling behind the music. It also helps that he possesses a lovely and durable singing voice, but the most remarkable thing about his musical performance is how completely expressive he is. As an interpretive choice, this puts the emphasis squarely upon the music, not the man, and that is precisely what makes this bravura, triple-threat, star turn such a delight to watch – Jon Peterson isn’t using this material to show off how well he can act, sing and tap dance – he has instead put his considerable skills in service of the material, and the result is a one-man tour-de-force that holds your attention, and sometimes your heart, throughout the performance.
This is a good show, discretely instructive and very entertaining, well-worth your time; a haunting visit from a welcome ghostly presence, whose work has perhaps been laid to rest too early, and I strongly recommend you take it in before this charming spectral apparition vanishes on August 29th.
GEORGE M. COHAN TONIGHT! An Abridged Performance on Screen, directed by Jon Peterson, from original direction by Chip Deffaa, music direction by Michael Lavine, cinematography by Oliver Peng, Marc Perroquín, Mkhail Kniazev and Jon Waldman, lighting by Allison Hohman, Michael Kauffman, Oliver Peng, Marc Parroquín, Jon Waldman and Brandon Cheney, and costumes by Peter Sellers and Billy Hipkins. Streaming through August 29th, 2021 at IrishRep.org