A history lesson about an early 20th-century musical theater icon, George M. Cohan, is brought to life onstage with Theatre Under the Stars' Yankee Doodle Dandy, with multiple songs from scores of his B'way hits, as well as extensive samplings of dancing, for Cohan was the ultimate B'way song-and-dance man.
The stage at Hermann Park's Miller Outdoor Theatre is deep enough to contain a full orchestra upstage and still provide room for movement downstage, fortunately, for if there is an opportunity for a dance, this production seizes it. Many of the songs have become classics and are remembered with fondness: "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Over There, Harrigan," "Mary Is a Grand Old Name" and "Grand Old Flag," all of which I grew up with. Each has a toe-tapping rhythm that carries you right along with it, with Mary slowing the pace a bit to allow some tenderness to filter through.
The format is a lecture with illustrations, but the illustrations are vibrant and fill the stage. James A. Rocco and David Armstrong created the work, and Rocco directed it, choreographed it and served as the narrator. His admiration for Cohan comes through, but his readings substitute warmth and sincerity for polish -- a more exciting narrator might work better. A lot of the history is fascinating and provides valuable insights into the birth and growth of musical comedy.
Some of the 25 songs are mere snippets, and some get a full production, such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" from Cohan's first show on B'way, Little Johnny Jones, about an American jockey riding in the English Derby; the costumes are sumptuous, and the staging varied and interesting. There is a charming, brief moment when Cohan proposes to his first wife in the guise of teaching her a new song. Cohan was noted for including flag-waving in his productions and, true to this tradition, Act I closes with "Grand Old Flag" and 15 large American flags paraded at length around the stage, to be topped by the appearance of a giant flag that fills the stage emerging as a backdrop. All that was missing was George C. Scott as General Patton.
The production is vastly entertaining, but when they're clustered together like this, Cohan's songs, while they share a sprightly energy, provide less variety than is found in many revues. Close to the end, there is a rendition of the truly lovely song "Give My Regards to Broadway," with the performer seated quietly, and I thought: Finally, I can relax and just savor the beauty and tenderness of this love song to the B'way that has brought so much joy to so many people. It was not to be. The performer leaped to his feet and entertained us with a tap dance that was brilliant, and extended. The narrator tells us that Cohan's mantra was "speed," that he directed actors to talk faster. But I suspect his mantra was simply: "more." He wanted to entertain the audience, and that meant giving them everything he had, including fancy footwork.
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Several actors play Cohan, at various ages, and his father is an important figure in the play, as are his mother, sister and his first wife, though less so. The female leads, all excellent, are Melinda Cowan, Cynthia Ferrer and Tari Kelly. The male leads are Greg McCormick Allen, Robb McKindles and Matt Owen, and all deliver the songs well, with Allen a standout as having more of the snap and sparkle we associate with Cohan, and being able to tap up a storm. The production is a courageous venture, since we have the brilliant 1942 film of the same name, for which James Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Since Rocco is so intimately involved with this production, it may be that it is still a work-in-progress and that additional shaping can strengthen it even further.
The songs and performances of George M. Cohan are remembered fondly and re-created with splendid energy in a narrated revue that delivers nostalgia, songs we know and love, and a lot of talented dancing.
Yankee Doodle Dandy from Theatre Under the Stars continues through July 22 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. Admission is free, but reservations are required for covered seating. For information or ticketing, call 713-558-TUTS or visit the company Web site.