George M. Cohan Tonight!
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
March 8, 2006
George M. Cohan Tonight! is a biographical fairy tale. A success story of a Broadway legend, it shines with the exuberant can-do optimism that made its subject famous. “Everything I do is just a series of well executed tricks,” a fellow vaudevillian explained to the young George M. Cohan. Determined to learn every trick in the business, Cohan was making up his own songs at age four, starring in his own act at 12, and taking over the family business at age 15. These very same tricks would eventually earn him a Congressional Medal of Honor (interesting piece of trivia: he refused to take a night off from performing to go and pick it up.)
The conceit of the play is that the ghost of George M. Cohan is haunting a Broadway theatre when he happens upon an audience. He then tells the story of his life in chronological order, mixing in appropriate songs from his repertoire. Jon Peterson, as Cohan, sings, dances, and charms his way through an hour and 45 minutes that pass in a flash. The only problem is a technical one: because he sings unamplified with a band in the background, it costs his voice some power and means the most effective moments are when the songs are broken up with dialogue. Despite this, Peterson is a consummate showman and our attention is riveted from beginning to end.
James Morgan’s wonderful sets put us backstage at a vaudeville theatre, David Toser’s beautiful costume gives us an instant sense of this man, and Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lights takes us out of the modern black box and into a world of footlights and greasepaint. Chip Deffaa’s tight, smart, and simple script manages to convey Cohan’s patriotic high spirits without ignoring the fact that attitudes about war have changed considerably. Deffaa refrains from commentary, simply laying out events for us to experience and observe. Easily the most chilling and moving moment of the show is the rendition of “Over There.” Deffaa sets it up in a simple, understated way. Peterson as Cohan remarks casually that he was paid more than any songwriter in history to write a little tune that would make young men around the country line up to enlist. He then launches into the pro-war anthem in a way that sends chills down your spine and yet brought the audience to thunderous applause.
The play makes clear that the most important relationship in Cohan’s life is to the theatre, despite numerous personal and business attachments. Cohan remains close to his father, mother, and sister his entire life. His business partner and best friend is Sam Harris, his music an inspiration to the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin. He has a wife, children, and numerous lovers. But no one ever surpasses his love of the stage. He never questions his priorities until the end of his life when his business partner dies and his children grow up strangers. As he begins to reflect on his choices, Cohan’s trademark optimism becomes mixed with sadness and complexity. This only enhances his power as a performer, inspiring Eugene O’Neill to write Ah, Wilderness for him. And when Cohan finds out he is dying, he finally allows a movie to be made of his life story. Starring protégés Jimmy Cagney and Walter Huston, Yankee Doodle Dandy is, of course, a hit.
As Peterson closes the show with a zippy rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway”, the subtle and perhaps troubled aspects of Cohan’s life fade. Whatever the reality may be, an exuberant, optimistic, fairy tale version of this man’s life is probably the most truthful. As Cohan’s daughter Georgette remarked after seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy, “That showed Daddy’s life the way he would have wanted to have lived it.”