The George M. Cohan Revue
Danny's Skylight Room - NYC
Review by John Kenrick
Jon Peterson stars as George M. Cohan
Musicals101 has an abiding interest in anything involving George M. Cohan, the multi-talented dynamo who dominated Broadway in the early 1900s. So you can understand how fascinated we are to see a new revue of his ditties. But time has passed. A hundred years after their creation, are Cohan's songs still stage worthy? The George M. Cohan Revue proves the answer is a resounding yes!
And we're not just talking the old reliables that everyone whistles on patriotic occasions. This charming show trots out dozens of Cohan rarities, and each and every one is solid entertainment. What's amazing is that this newborn show is so enjoyable in a simple showcase production.
Author Chip Deffaa has been working on a series of shows examining Cohan's legacy. This latest incarnation uses just enough dialogue to keep things in context, but otherwise lets Cohan songs speak for themselves. And what a joy it is to hear them! This is the perfect vehicle for a small and talented cast of eight, so summer theatres and community groups take note -- nostalgic but fresh, The George M. Cohan Revue might be the perfect thing for your next season.
Yes, we get to revel in "Mary," "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and other familiar favorites. But we also get to meet the likes of "Telephone Me Baby," "The American Ragtime" and "Dancing My Worries Away." Without exception, these songs still have genuine audience appeal, a quality that Cohan's father Jerry used to call "the listen." Each one gets and keeps your attention, often calling forth a smile or chuckle. And it is grand to feel the genuine tingle that "Give My Regard to Broadway" and "Your a Grand Old Flag" can set off.
Of course, none of this would work if the cast was not sympatico. Rather than imitate Cohan's wry and sometimes grating performance style, Jon Peterson makes the role his own -- a wise move, since Peterson has enough personality and talent to fill most any stage. He's a natural, the sort of actor you can't help falling for. Too many performers think that "musical comedy" means smiling till it visibly hurts, hitting audiences over the head with forced energy to win applause. Peterson is the real thing, so relaxed and likeable that you enjoy having opportunities to cheer him on. I can only hope we see a lot more of this man on New York stages in years to come.
Broadway veterans Hal Blankenship and Joan Jaffe sparkle as Cohan's vaudevillian parents, and Dawne Swearingen shows a sweet soprano as sister Josie. Michael Townsend Wright as the narrator and ensemble members Catherine Remmert and Drew Emerson round out the company, all delivering the songs the Cohan would have wanted -- clean, straightforward interpretations, with some fine choral singing along the way. Tap choreography can be a tricky business on a small cabaret stage, but Justin Boccito devised some surprisingly effective numbers.
In its present incarnation, the libretto includes a narrator and statements by the various characters. I'm not sure that both are necessary -- these people can tell us all we need to know. Other than this, Deffaa's script delivers a lot of information without turning into a dry history lesson. It's fun all the way, and his direction kept things moving smoothly from the get go.
In short, The George M. Cohan Revue is a musical lover's treat. If you don't know much about Cohan, this is a great way to encounter his songs and find out why he was such a theatrical legend.