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Stage Review : 'George M!' Revival Is Irresistible

October 30, 1987|CATHY de MAYO

Corny, sentimental, manipulative, glib--any and all of these adjectives would describe the late, legendary Broadway showman George M. Cohan. Add "irresistible," and you've also got a good description of "George M!," a musical biography from 1968 being given a spirited revival by the Fullerton Civic Light Opera.

This is Cohan's life as he might have scripted it: fast and flashy, big on clever bits, long on song and dance, short on content and character development. And loaded with opportunities for flag-waving and waxing sentimental. Its durable score includes such indelible standards as "Give My Regards to Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There," delivered in the shamelessly patriotic production number style that Cohan loved so much. At FCLO, the flag-waving still stops the show (as it should, if the director is doing his job).

A special advantage of this production is Danny Taylor in the title role: He delivers a virtuoso portrayal of the talented, egotistical, fascinating and confounding Cohan. Taylor knows exactly what he's doing.

He captures the notorious ego by having Cohan strike a jaunty pose--hip jutting, arm outstretched--at the drop of his name (and Cohan is usually the one dropping it). This is a portrait of a man who always plays to an audience, whether it's an audience of one or 100. Furthermore, he always plays to the back of the house. But even in a performance this big, Taylor finds the small details that point to another, less secure man beneath the bluster.

The script is annoyingly glib with the details of Cohan's life. He moves from obscurity to Broadway in a blink. He glides from Wife No. One to Wife No. Two overnight. He turns his back on Broadway in a huff and disappears from public life for years, and those years remain unexplained and unexplored. The emotions are too easy, and that rankles.

But Taylor manages to reveal less of the showman and more of the man himself in the final scenes, when Cohan confronts his limits for the first time. It is a physical as well as an emotional transition, etched in Taylor's stooped shoulders, stiff limbs and weary expression, and it carries an impact that lingers long after the toe-tapping of the production numbers has faded.

Some of the best work here is contributed by the other three Cohans: Tom Blank as the father who carted his family around the vaudeville circuit, Polly Seale as the mother and Heather Hoppus as the sister.

Blank's bedrock geniality provides a good balance for Taylor's volatile intensity; he offers a characterization of a father who is proud of, but also a bit overwhelmed by, his child prodigy. Their mock fisticuffs in "Harrigan" offer an inspired segue from a bitter father-son disagreement to news of the father's death.

All the women are written in shorthand. Julie Dixon is nicely dignified as Cohan's first wife, and Barbara Wright is warmly nurturing as his second wife. One of the nicest turns in the show comes from Karen Forest as Fay Templeton, a Broadway star who finally deigns to appear in a Cohan show, then walks away with the hit song "Mary's a Grand Old Name."

Director Rob Barron ensures that all the theatricality of this very theatrical piece is delivered, with aid from a solid chorus and those big, glossy production numbers. Those numbers feature some fancy footwork, and again, Taylor makes the major contributions. He makes it look effortless, whether he's tapping across the stage, down a flight of stairs or up the sides of the proscenium arch. The choreography is lively and well executed, matched by the fine work of the live orchestra.

The set design matches the scope of the show, with floor-to-ceiling red, white and blue bunting, an ocean liner that seems to sail offstage, an evocative backdrop of Broadway and a broad staircase that showcases all that patriotic song and dance. "George M!" A Fullerton Civic Light Opera Co. production. Book by Michael Stewart and John and Fran Pascal. Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan. Lyrics and musical revisions by Mary Cohan. Director, choreographer Rob Barron. With Danny Taylor, Tom Blank, Polly Seale, Heather Hoppus, Julie Dixon, Barbara Wright, Karen Forest, Griff Duncan. Musical director Lee Kreter. Set coordinator Steven Craig. Costume coordinator Jenny Wentworth. Lighting design Donna Ruzika. Plays at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday. Closes Nov. 1. Tickets $9-$17. Plummer Auditorium, Lemon Street and Chapman Avenue, Fullerton, (714) 879-1732.

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