George M!Published: Monday, June 11, 2012 7:00 am By: James Cotter Source: The Times Herald Record
BY JAMES F. COTTER For the Times Herald-Record
ELMSFORD – To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, the Westchester Broadway Theatre is staging “George M!,” the musical about George M. Cohan (1878-1942), the “Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the Fourth of July.” However, since the dinner-show closes on July 1st, you better see it in June to get into the flag-waving, tapping feet spirit.
At nine, George and his sister Josie joined their parents Jerry and Nellie as “The Four Cohans” on the vaudeville circuit. From ragtime to riches, from 1904 to 1920 he ruled Broadway with 50 musicals as writer, composer, director, producer and actor. “Give My Regards Broadway” sums up his lasting contribution to the American theater.
“George M!” employs the music and lyrics of Cohan himself as revised for the show by his daughter Mary, with book by Michael Stewart and John and Francine Pascal. With Joel Grey in the lead role, It opened on Broadway in 1968 at the Palace Theatre where it ran for 433 performances. Back in 1942, James Cagney won an Oscar for the film “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
The Westchester revival is directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford with musical direction by Leo P. Carusone. It stars John Scherer in the title role, a red-white-and-blue dynamo who blares out the First World War hits, “Over There” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” declares New York City to be ‘My Home Town” and spells out “Harrigan” by beating out each syllable like a boxer. Scherer makes Cohan to be a driven song and dance man who as “The Man Who Owns Broadway” disowns it when actors go out on strike and he refuses to join or even deal with the union. He never recovers the glory of his halcyon days on the Great White Way.
As George’s father Jerry, Jim Walton sets the tone for the musical with “Always Leave Them Laughing” and with Melodie Wolford as George’s mother Nellie, joins as husband and wife to sing “Musical Moon.” (Melodie really lives up to her name.) Amanda Trusty is George’s sister Josie who has her own solo with “Oh You Wonderful Boy.” From “All Aboard for Broadway” to Times Square itself, the Four Cohans are together in the numbers that follow until, much to George’s chagrin, Josie marries and leaves the company. As George’s first wife Ethel, Laura Schutter announces “I Was Born in Virginia” and joins the family to sing “Twentieth Century Love” and “Popularity.” She also angers George by divorcing him since he has no time to spend with her off stage. Jeanette Minson is Agnes, who becomes George’s second wife, introducing herself with “Billie” and remaining at his side to the end as her “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
As Fay Templeton, a musical star of the era, Katharine Heaton resists George’s attempts to have her become part of his company, but his songs win her over. Her rendition of “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” is a show stopper, and she lends her fine soprano to the hit songs that make up the second act. George’s partner Sam Harris is played by Gary Lynch as a savvy businessman who knows how to let George have his way with “All Our Friends.” The ensemble of a dozen singers and dancers support the cast of eight principals for lively, colorful turn of the last century scenes supported by a spirited orchestra of seven players.
Set design by John Farrell employs a decorated proscenium that is mobile, simple and effective, made all the more so with the brilliant lighting by Andrew Gmoser Costume designer Leon Dobkowski has done wonders with pastel skirts and dresses for the ladies, complete with fancy hats and parasols, and for the men dashing uniforms, formalwear, classy suits and George’s walking stick.