'George M!' a Rah-Rah American Period Piece at WBT

Published: Monday, June 18, 2012 7:00 am By: Bill Primavera Source: The Examiner

“George M!” is hyped as a “razzle-dazzle tap dance spectacular.” The production, which recently opened atWestchester Broadway Theatre, is forced to live up to its promise, especially the fast-moving part, considering that it condenses the career of iconic entertainer, playwright, composer and lyricist George M. Cohan into a mere two hours.

The object of this show’s affection is credited with inventing the musical comedy that sprung from decades of vaudeville. Far from a sympathetic character, George M. Cohan was reputed to be self-absorbed, pushy and difficult in the quest of his dream to be the greatest thing to ever hit Broadway.

In fact, known as “Mr. Broadway” and immortalized by his Times Square statue, Cohan was an actor, singer, writer, dancer, owner of theaters and producer, excelling in all disciplines from the time of his Broadway debut at age 15. During his lengthy career, he wrote  40 plays, collaborated on 40 others, produced another 150 and published over 500 songs.

I wondered how the WBT audience would respond to a show whose familiar numbers are rah-rah American from almost a century earlier (“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”) but others so mawkishly dated that most of us probably relied on the excellent direction and choreography of Richard Stafford to carry us through what otherwise might have been so yesterday.

The audience on opening night included a large group of high school students who would be more likely to listen to Lady Gaga, but they seemed to enjoy this period piece of unfamiliar material in a respectful way, much as they would a lesson in history class. Also, the talents of a spirited cast helped bridge the gap of a century of changes in musical taste.

John Scherer as George M. Cohan pulls off a basically unlikeable character with some aplomb, certainly with his charming smile, solid voice and dancing, which frequently imitates Jimmy Cagney’s special style, hoofing more on his toes than the balls of his feet, and his body held as though suspended by a string. Once over the challenge of portraying a teenager some years after believability, Scherer settles comfortably into creating his character.

The exceptional actor in the show is pitch perfect Jim Walton as Jerry Cohan, George’s father.PutnamValleyresident Melodie Wolford (Nellie Cohan) is forever understanding and accepting of her son’s peccadilloes, and Amanda Trusty, as sister Josie Cohan, has a cherubic face that is perfect for the period.

Cohan’s first wife, Ethel, is played by Laura Schutter who is razor sharp when she gives George his walking papers. Jeannette Manson as George’s second wife or ‘Worcester,Mass.” as she is called, is charming and has a crystal clear singing voice. Another great voice in the cast is that of Katharine Heaton (Fay Templeton) whose step-out song is “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,”