BWW Review: MTW Gives Regards to YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

BWW Review: MTW Gives Regards to YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

Yankee Doodle Dandy/book by David Armstrong/music and lyrics by George M, Cohan/new words and music by Albert Evans/directed and choreographed by James A. Rocco/musical director: Jeff Rizzo/Musical Theatre West (MTW)/Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts/through July 22 only

Previous attempts have been made to bring George M. Cohan's life to the stage. None is remembered, however, as much as the 1942 film starring James Cagney. Book writer David Armstrong has constructed a much more realistic account of Yankee Doodle Dandy, trying to avoid the traps of Hollywood tinsel, currently onstage at MTW Long Beach at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts through July 22. In spite of the fantastic cast and sturdy direction and scintillating choreography by James A. Rocco, it turns in a rather weak account of the father of the American musical comedy (1878-1942). Not that you shouldn't see it; go for the cast and the sheer entertainment value of the music alone that set the scene for Rodgers nd Hammerstein and others to follow.

BWW Review: MTW Gives Regards to YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

First and foremost, one should realize and not forget that the subject under tribute is George M.Cohan and not James Cagney. After seeing the movie, it's hard to separate them; both Irish Catholics and unstoppable talents, they somehow have fused together over the years. But...this is turn of the 20th century Cohan, played here by Adam Wylie. Wylie who has grown through the years into a fine theatrical performer, does his utmost to fill Cohan's shoes. Cohan was brash and determined to take his hit family vaudeville act, billed as The Four Cohans: mother and father played by Cynthia Ferrer and David Engel and sister Josie, essayed by Tro Shaw, to new theatrical heights. He created a scenario in which to feature his music and became the first composer of the musical comedy such as in "Harrigan", his early hit song, and Little Johnny Jones. He was practically laughed off the stage with the show about politician Harrigan and had to contend with increasing setbacks as he partnered with Sam Harris (Matthew Kacergis) but eventually produced several milestone productions including All My Boys, 45 Minutes From Broadway and So Long, Mary, These became bonified hits for Cohan.

Enter WW1 and musical hits like "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag". Cohan's parents retired, Josie got married and so did George to actress/singer Ethel Levy (Cassie Simone), and the act shut down. George had his own theatre, was the toast of Broadway. With his eyes consistently wide open for a pretty girl, he philandered and destroyed his first marriage, only to marry once more to chorus girl Agnes Mary Nolan (Katie Marshall) ("Mary Is a Grand Old Name"), who remained with him until his death in 1942.

BWW Review: MTW Gives Regards to YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

David Armstrong's first act comes off quite gloriously because of the songs and big production tap numbers which make the audience dizzy with delight. Act II, however, in spite of the storyline of the war and and actors strike, becomes dull and uninteresting except for a couple of plot elements. One number "Broadway Gave Us Everything" by Albert Evans, reunites The Four Cohans for the last time at the Friar's Club. It's a joy to watch. Then the older Cohan (David Allen Jones) dismisses his daughter Georgette (also Cassie Simone) as she revs up his music, making it horribly unrecognizable, for a speak easy presentation. The Old George looks at his life as a waste, claiming "I have stood out here in the dark all these years, and where did it get me?" The big finale with all the future shows like Cabaret, Guys and Dolls and Annie come flying out, making us see that it was Cohan who started it all. But as he stands watching, we realize that he didn't live to see any of it. This kind of display, despite the great choreography from Rocco, has been done to death in musicals and is not completely satisfying. Why not end with a big encore of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", keeping Cohan in the spotlight? Disappointing!

BWW Review: MTW Gives Regards to YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

But... not the work from the iron-clad ensemble who never let down. Thank heavens for stalwarts like Engel and Ferrer who are real pros and always in great form. Jones is wonderful as the dissatisfied Older George. Shaw is superb as Josie, as is Simone in her dual roles as Ethel and Georgette. Kacergis makes a sincere and sympathetic Harris with a lovely deathbed scene. Wylie, of course, dominates the show and proves himself a performer to contend with.

Creative behind the scenes team work is wonderfully realized. Period costumes by Cecilia Gutierrez are lovely to look at and in abundance; simplistic but completely functional scenic design by Kevin Clowes is also of note, with Jeff Rizzo and his orchestra totally visible back centerstage. It's so gratifying to hear a live orchestra onstage!

Don't miss Yankee Doodle Dandy and revel in the terrific music, and choreography. Just be aware that this is not based on the film. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy in spite of the flaws that beset the book.

BWW Review: MTW Gives Regards to YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

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(photo credit: Caught in the Moment Photography)

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