George M. Cohan (1878-1942), the influential dynamo of early 20th century American theater may not have the cachet of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim or even Jerry Herman, but his importance to American Musical Theater is personified by the statue of his likeness in Duffy Square, just south of the TKTS booth for all those on line to ignore.
For the personage who, in his own song called himself “the man who owns Broadway” this is a curious lapse, even though James Cagney’s Academy Award winning performance as Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy is shown often on TCM supplying evidence of his long, profitable career.
An abridged version of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s George M. Cohan Tonight!—first presented in 2006—has been re-imagined for the screen and provides truck loads of evidence of Cohan’s all-American genius. Even though his voluminous body of songs—over 300!—are not exactly contemporary cabaret material they were just as (if not more) popular than those of his fellow songwriter Irving Berlin who also is famous for his rah-rah patriotic ditties.
It is definitely worth a gander for both its subject matter and its performer, the disarming and immensely talented Jon Peterson who also adapted the one-man play from Chip Deffaa’s original stage production which Deffaa previously staged. Peterson directed this filmed adaptation and choreographed the scintillating tap routines matched with joyous precision to Cohan’s repertoire of gung-ho Americana. (Think “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway.”) The choreographic high point was Peterson’s hip-swinging dance to “The Hinkey Dee.”
Peterson appears at first in dim light—originally created by Mary Jo Dondlinger—costumed in a period-perfect dark suit and brightly colored vest—originally designed by David Toser, here provided by Cavani. His opening song, “Hello Broadway” sets the mood. He tells of his loving family and his uncanny maturity, writing songs and material for the family’s act starting at four years old, entirely taking charge of the family’s business at age fifteen.
With skilled camera work framing and enhancing his blithe performance, Peterson, as the ghostly spirit of Cohan sings and (mostly) dances his way through Cohan’s life. The son of vaudevillians, Jere and Nellie Cohan, his entire world consisted of stages, dressing rooms, hotels and boarding houses across the United States until he met Sam Harris by sheer coincidence on the Staten Island Ferry and a titanic business/artistic partnership was born.
GMCT! guides us chronologically through the showman’s eventful life, each step illustrated with a song, most of them of the virtually unknown variety.
A yarn about arriving in a small town with a straight play leads to “You Won’t Do Any Business If You Haven’t Got a Band.” His love for his sister: “Josephine.” Even Eugene O’Neill respected Cohan enough to write Ah, Wilderness! for him.
This telling of Cohan’s life assiduously avoids any darker notes. He is portrayed as an exorbitantly generous man—which he was purported to be—blessed with the ability to keep his finger on the pulse of America all the while honoring his family, both is parents and sister Josie and his first wife Ethel Levey, all of whom benefited greatly from his largesse.
No mention is made of his furious denouncement of Actors’ Equity Association when it was formed in 1919, a fight that ironically led to his being barred for years from performing in his own shows which cast a shadow on his later life.
Nevertheless, watching Peterson’s earnest interpretations of the songs, all by Cohan with additional material by Deffaa, is quite entertaining. He ends with the wistful “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All.”
Peter Sellers of BumptyBump Productions is the person in charge of George M. Cohan Tonight!. The expert video and audio editing is credited to Peetapix and the mood enhancing sound effects to Audio Jungle.
Due to filming in several locations, several people are credited with the evocative sets: Sellers, Audrey Vuong and Brandon Cheney.
Michael Lavine (a theatrical legend in his own right) is the musical supervisor and pianist leading a small band in colorful arrangements.
Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of the Irish Rep and Ciarán O’Reilly, its producing director, introduce the video with inviting graciousness.
George M. Cohan Tonight! (streaming August 17-28, 2021)
Irish Repertory Theatre
A BumptyBump Production
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: 90 minutes