Review: 'George M!' at Theatre By The Sea
George M! tells the story of Rhode Island born George M. Cohan. The ghost of Mr. Cohan still lingers in the collective conscious of theater-goers with the songs he is associated with including "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "Yankee Doodle." James Cagney played a memorable Cohan in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy. On Broadway, Joel Grey took the role in 1968 between his gigs in the Broadway and film productions of Cabaret.
In telling the life of George M. Cohan from third-rate vaudevillian to uber-successful Broadway producer, George M! serves as a patriotic pastiche of song and dance. It is a propaganda piece that celebrates the American Dream through the American Musical. The show, not surprisingly, has yet to have a Broadway revival since its closing in 1969.
Theatre By The Sea's (TBTS) Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner directs this production as it is written. There is no distance, no nod to the century that has passed since much of the material was popular. The acting style she has created for this production is straight out of the early "talkies."
TBTS's Managing Director Joel Kipper plays the title role. Handsome and affable, with a pleasant singing voice and above-average tap skills, Kipper is most engaging while dancing and at his most intense when he is off-stage yelling at the actors on stage. Kipper's Cohan is never really as unlikable as the script says he is. This Cohan is never beastly or manipulative, cutting a swath of human wreckage through his life. Kipper's Cohan is "aw-shucks" driven, pursuing his American Dream.
Kipper is joined by a large and capable cast including Bob Freschi as George's father Jerry, Jane Labanz as George's mom Nellie and Kristen Quartarone as his sister Josie. This completes the "Four Cohans", the troupe that gave George his early start. The four are quickly joined by George's first wife Ethel, played by Morgan Rose.
Molly Marie Walsh is charming as Agnes, who becomes George's second wife. Ms. Walsh's first solo number "Billy" is a bright moment in Act One. It is followed quickly by another. This time the bright moment is a full-company, all-singing, all dancing and completely entertaining production number "Popularity."
Act Two has many of the songs that have strong associations with the entertainer. There is lots of Red, White and Blue and more than a few attempts at "rousing." Separately, the songs "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Over There" and You're a Grand Old Flag" should send an audience into a toe-tapping, hand-clapping frenzy. Not here.
The play comes to its conclusion as Cohan ages dramatically and struggles to comprehend how and why his audience has changed.
There are a few familiar faces in this production. Returning to the TBTS stage are Brian Bailey, Jonathan Cooper, and Gail Yudain. There are also some local actors in the production, most notably the very talented sisters Leah and Rachel Benz, who are age 12 and 10, respectively.
The spectacle that makes a "show" a "big show" is all on display here. There are beautiful and multiple scenes that change constantly. Each of the two dozen or so actors has at least five (some many more) costume changes. The costume department must be a madhouse and the wig mistress an eight-armed Durga to get everyone on-stage on cue, dressed and ready. Bravo.
Performances for George M! are scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings at 8:00 pm, Thursdays at 2:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:30 & 8:30 pm, and Sunday evenings at 5:00 pm, with special performance times on Sunday, June 22 at 3:00 & 8:00 pm and a special Wednesday matinee on July 9 at 2:00 pm.
The theatre is located at 364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck, RI. Tickets are $39-$49. $15 Student rush tickets will be available on a limited basis one hour prior to curtain on the day of the performance with a valid student ID.
Tickets are on sale at the box office Mon-Sat from 10:00 am-4:00 pm, online 24-hours-a-day at www.theatrebythesea.com and via telephone during normal box office hours by calling (401) 782-TKTS (8587). The box office will also be open one hour prior to every performance and at 12 noon on Sunday.
Photo: Joel Kipper (front) and the ensemble perform "Give My Regards To Broadway". Photo by Mark Turek, courtesy of Theatre By The Sea