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Theatre in Review: George M. Cohan Tonight! (Irish Repertory Theatre Online)

For its latest streamed presentation, the Irish Rep resurrects the life of Broadway's first great Irish-American star. The original multihyphenate, George M. Cohan took New York by storm in the early years of the preceding century, succeeding as a playwright, songwriter, director, producer, and star. As one of his biographers, John McCabe, notes, he was The Man Who Owned Broadway, producing one hit show after another while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the great American songbook.

Like all great entertainers, Cohan took the public's pulse, sensing that the time was ripe for a new kind of Broadway musical. One of the founding fathers of musical comedy, he filled the stage with brash, wisecracking characters and up-tempo, flag-waving toe-tappers. It was the age of the Yankee; American culture -- flush with cash and ready to assert itself -- was detaching itself from the European model. On a Broadway scene packed with schmaltzy operettas, Cohan's shows were a blast of revivifying oxygen.

In Chip Deffaa's solo musical, Cohan's unquiet spirit enters an empty theatre, ready to recount his many triumphs. Not shy about asserting that he was the "most imitated entertainer of them all," he recalls a childhood spent touring as one of The Four Cohans, a failed attempt at schooling, his early Broadway successes, his legendary partnership with co-producer Sam H. Harris, and, later, his famed appearances in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! and (as Franklin Roosevelt) in Rodgers and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right.

This is a largely admiring portrait; omitted are the failure of his first marriage to co-star Ethel Levey -- his second wife doesn't rate a mention -- and his opposition to the founding of Actors' Equity, a stand that soured many in the Broadway community. (This is an abridged edition of a production seen at the Irish Rep in 2006; perhaps the longer version addresses some of these issues, or perhaps Deffaa feels that the format doesn't allow room for such matters.) Celebration, rather than incisive criticism, is the thing here, informed by an appreciation of Cohan's manic energy. That he was a dynamo, there is little doubt: Discussing his early hit Little Johnny Jones, he informs us that he booked a theatre, hired a rehearsal hall, engaged a cast, and announced an opening date, adding, "Then I started to write the show."

Nevertheless, sadder currents can be detected inside Jon Peterson's sensitive portrayal of Cohan. The actor comes on with a smile on his face, a chip on his shoulder, and -- if you care to notice -- a surprisingly lost look in his eyes. Most of the time, his Cohan is a traveling salesman hawking American pep, a breezy braggart equipped with a light-on-his-feet tap style and a nasal belt aimed precisely at the last row of the second balcony. He's an expert seducer and he doesn't mind who knows it, and yet, underneath the jokes and songs, is a persistent, pervasive melancholy.

Peterson takes up the hints of dissatisfaction in Deffaa's script, using them to complicate and deepen his characterization. The show notes that Cohan, forever on the road with his parents and sisters, never learned to trust anyone outside their tight little unit. Despite his mayor-of-Broadway status -- he left the house each day, his pockets stuffed with money for anyone who needed it -- Cohan concedes that Harris was one of his very few intimates. A passing remark about his kids hints at more profound losses. And when he notes that his talent consists of "a series of well-executed tricks," he seems to prefigure one of O'Neill's lost Broadway souls, like "Erie" Smith in Hughie or the tragic Jamie Tyrone. Such impressions pass in a flash but are not to be ignored. Peterson does very well by the Cohan standards assembled for the occasion -- "Harrigan," "Mary's A Grand Old Name," and the rest -- but it is his deeply nuanced rendition of "Life's a Funny Proposition," from Little Johnny Jones, that lays bare the limitations of a career spent in the limelight. "In the end," he says, as if asking us for affirmation, "work is just about all we have, isn't it?"

It's an arresting moment of vulnerability from a character whose confidence was his calling card. Peterson, acting as his own director (based on Deffaa's original), brilliantly creates a portrait out of contrasting light and darkness. The filmed presentation is a bit fussy about shifting between color and black and white images, sometimes in the middle of a speech, but the songs are evergreens and Peterson's work is nuanced and powerful throughout. You can find George M. Cohan Tonight! at https://irishrep.org/show/irish-rep-online-2021/george-m-cohan-tonight-2/. --David Barbour

(18 August 2021)

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