The Ordway's new musical biography of George M. Cohan seems intent on mining the composer’s classic American songs for box office gold. And judging by the audience’s reaction opening night, they probably have not miscalculated. But the evening left me feeling enervated and demoralized. The only thing that depressed me more than the show itself was the audience’s enthusiastic countenance of it.
The major problem is David Armstrong’s book. According to the Ordway website, it purports to present “a fresh, contemporary view of a celebrated musical theater icon.” But it is really little more than a collection of backstage clichés. The dialogue is often cornier than the excerpts of the scenes from Cohan’s musicals. The plot is overly melodramatic and lacks subtlety. Even worse, it is undramatic. For example, when Cohan’s first wife leaves him out of neglect, it’s hard to muster much interest because her character was barely established in the first place.
Too often, the scenes seemed like just feeble hooks on which to hang the songs, though there are some indisputably great ones, such as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “Harrigan” and of course, the title song. But a number of songs are decidedly second rate, and the overall production makes a few missteps that could have been avoided.
I was most troubled by a speech of Cohan’s at the top of Act Two patriotically celebrating the United States’ intervention into World War I. In the current political climate, it would not be hard to read this speech as a justification for our invasion of Iraq, and I suspect that’s why it got so much applause. But opinions on the war vary, and I personally don’t appreciate it when patriotism gets hijacked by reactionary politics, and if the producers didn’t realize this would be a sensitive issue—well, they should have.
But for all that, there were compensations:
This is a dance show par excellence. The proficiency of the ensemble, along with the creativity of James A. Rocco and Jayme McDaniel (responsible for the direction and choreography), made for some stunning displays. Frankly, I often find dance interludes to be deadening longueurs, but these complemented the musical numbers beautifully.
I was initially skeptical of the decision to put the orchestra onstage, fearing that it was an attempt to avoid needing to create a much of a set. But it proved a wise choice. It did indeed simplify the need for scenic elements (though designer Chad Van Kekerix was fully able to create a real sense of period). But playing the action fully downstage, without the obstacle of an intervening orchestra pit, created an improved sense of intimacy.
In addition, the costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk were spectacular, adding much visual interest. And, being the Ordway, there was more than a little eye-popping spectacle. The extravagant display at the end of the first act, with its pyrotechnics on stage and streamers descending on the audience, seemed like a New Year’s Eve celebration on steroids. It felt a little extraneous to what was actually going on onstage, but it was hard not to be swept along by the sheer ostentatiousness.
What kept me most interested were the biographical elements. Cohan’s history was fascinating. He basically, single-handedly, invented what we now think of as the Broadway musical, as distinct from the older genre of operetta. The script is full of scenes from some of the early shows, like Little Johnny Jones, that, for musical comedy aficionados like me, were especially illuminating. Armstrong would have done well to replace any number of his own creaking scenes with more such excerpts.
And sweeping all other considerations aside was Sean Martin Hingston’s performance as Cohan. He owned the stage, masterfully capturing the charismatic, larger-than-life persona that was a large part of Cohan’s success. His singing voice filled the theater, ringing to the top balcony, and he had the courage not to disguise Cohan’s less admirable traits (the man was arrogant and unwilling not to have his way, even if it meant being deceitful). Hingston was refreshingly smarmy, especially in the scenes where Cohan manipulated to prevent the formation of the actor's union.
In the end, my reservations about this show probably don’t matter. Its energy and Cohan’s music are probably enough to make it a commercial success. It’s just a pity that it couldn’t be an artistic one as well.
Yankee Doodle Dandy continues at Ordway Center through August 17.