George M. Cohan was known as “the man who owned Broadway” in the first two decades of the twentieth century. A prolific playwright and composer of hundreds of songs, today he’s mostly known as the answer to the trivia question “Whose statue can be found opposite Times Square between 45th and 47th Street?” He is considered by many to be the father of the American musical, which is why he deserves a better show about him than the one written by Michael Stewart and John & Francine Pascal.
George M!, running now at 6th Street Playhouse in a production directed by Patrick Nims, debuted on Broadway in 1968 and closed a year later. It starred Joel Grey in his follow up role to his Tony-winning work in Cabaret. George M! managed two Tony nominations, one for Grey and one for choreographer Joe Layton with Layton winning. It has never been revived and is rarely performed these days.
There’s a reason for that.
The book written around Cohan’s songs is a stock show biz story with paper-thin characters and little in the way of plot. It’s the story of Cohan’s rise and fall as the toast of Broadway, beginning with small town vaudeville days as part of a family act to becoming one of Broadway’s biggest producers. Most dialogue exists as a way to introduce one of Cohan’s songs, and once you get past the most well-known of those (“Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) there’s little left of interest.
Cohan’s jingoistic, flag waving style may have led to big hits around the time of World War I, but it had to feel out-of-step by the 1960’s and fifty years has not made it more palatable.
The title role is played by Joseph Favalora, a terrific dancer who has brightened Sonoma County stages before with his talent. Unfortunately, the character gives him little to do as it seems to have been written in only two shades – Cohan as cocky, self-assured artist, and Cohan as angry bastard. Favalora is believable as the former, but simply not credible as the latter. Thankfully, the rest of the time he’s dancing, which is Mr. Favaloras’ forte.
Dancing is this show’s strong suit, and choreographers Marilyn and Melinda Murray pull off what many thought would be a difficult task- taking a large cast of mostly untrained dancers and turning them into a credible tap-dancing troupe. The show really comes alive during the large ensemble numbers when there are 30+ tap-dancing feet on the stage.
Other moments of life are provided by some of the supporting actors. Jacinta Gorringe has fun as boarding house owner Mrs. Grimaldi and Jill K. Wagoner makes for a fine diva as Faye Templeton. The ensemble is strong as they switch between multiple characters as scenes from several Cohan shows are recreated. For example, Jake Druzgala has some nice moments as Cohan’s partner Sam Harris and also shows up as a carnival fire eater.
Cohan’s music is well handled by Music Director Justin Pyne and a thirteen-piece orchestra. There are thirty-some musical numbers in this show which can be exhausting for a musician but Pyne and Company provided musical consistency from start to finish. That only five (a generous estimate) of the songs will ring a bell to some (and not many) theatre-goers is a problem.
On a technical note, the opening night performance had numerous sound issues which should be resolved quickly. Costume Designer Tracy Hinman must have bought up every inch of red, white and blue fabric in the state to colorfully dress the cast.
Theatre people love to put on shows about theatre people, hence the regularity of productions like Noises Off and the canon of Ken Ludwig. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. 6th Street Playhouse dipped into that well earlier in the season with Stage Kiss and in prior seasons with shows like Crazy for You, Funny Girl, and The Producers. Maybe it’s time to give theatre-themed shows a rest.
And George M! should be put to sleep.
George M! plays through July 9 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.