The latest "boreyfication" (named, of course, for Sonny Borey, artistic director of Le Petit) is a rousing, razzle-dazzle George M! that had a full-to-the-rafters opening-night crowd on its feet and clapping along with the tuneful curtain call.
Like last year's well-received Barnum, George M! is a myth about a myth. It presents the same sort of enhanced, breezy bigger-than-life portrait of a flamboyant turn-of-the-century figure. And as with Barnum, only the onset of rigor mortis could prevent involuntary gasps of pleasure and amazement at some of the razzmatazz. Particularly rousing were the dance numbers. The company brought abundant charm and high-kilowatt energy to Karen Hebert's delightful choreography.
Furthermore, it is with heartfelt relief that I can announce that the orchestra of the disappeared has once again been released from their mysterious place of confinement. To a man, they seem in good condition and not suffering any post-traumatic stress. Conductor Jay Haydel was positively ebullient with his new-found freedom and encouraged the audience to clap along with his ensemble, as though in celebration. Certainly, the live presence of the orchestra contributes to the electricity of the show.
The play traces the rise, fall and resurrection of George M. Cohan, famous for such well-known songs as "It's a Grand Old Rag." Well, that's how he wrote it. He was forced to change "rag" to "flag" by patriotic organizations who found his affectionate slang inappropriate for the national emblem. I must say I think they did the Yankee Doodle Boy a favor.
Cohan was a backstage brat. His parents were vaudevillians, and baby George was brought onstage in their skits. By the time he was 8, he was playing violin in the pit orchestra. In his teens, he became a full partner in the Four Cohans: his mother, his father, his sister and himself. They led the knock-about, nomadic existence of vaudeville headliners. But George had his eyes on the legit stage. He was determined to make it on Broadway.
To get a sense of what Cohan brought to musical theater, one need only look at his great competitor, Victor Herbert, who was a Vienna-trained classical cellist and conductor, for whom the world of popular entertainment held a kind of raffish charm. He wrote operettas with orchestral scores. Cohan wrote simple, catchy tunes to fit the four chords he knew on the piano. One of his dictums for the musical stage was, "Speed! Speed! And lots of it! Perpetual Motion!"
As Barnum draws a cartoon of P.T. Barnum's life, in the extravagantly cheerful manner of a circus poster, George M! bounces through the major events of Cohan's life as if he were the star of a five-act musical comedy written by a celestial librettist with a Dexedrine problem. Having toyed heavy-handedly with the theme of love vs. ambition, the play unexpectedly pauses and takes a tentative peek at a much more convincing conflict, when the aging Cohan, who once bragged he owned Broadway, is forced to face his own obsolescence at the hands of a young stage manager. But this interesting moment is shrugged off in the interests of a suitably upbeat and boisterous finale.
Ultimately, I suppose George M! captures Cohan's patented brand of can-do optimism -- the same optimism, it must added, that led tens of thousands of young men to rush to their death to the strains of "Over There" for a cause that scholars still struggle to explain.
Patrick Mendelson sings and dances with great panache and displays a suitable never-say-die pugnacity in the demanding central role. Surrounding him, as the other Cohans, are the sprightly Ann Casey, debonair C. Patrick Gendusa and vivacious Sarah Jane McMahon -- a trio that can carol and hoof it with the best of 'em. Other standouts are Jauné Buisson, Michelle Marcotte and Terri Gervais. While Jennifer Richards, Bert Pigg, Marlene Thian and Derek Franklin are memorable in smaller parts.
Bill Walker's set is effective in all of its many transformations, and the attractive costumes by Florence Wingerter and Regina Schotzhauer are numerous enough to outfit several platoons of the American Expeditionary Force, as well their sweethearts, languishing back home.
Directors Sonny Borey and Derek Franklin have once again pulled out all the stops and the result is a crowd-pleaser that would undoubtedly win an approving nod from the eponymous Mr. Cohan.
- Patrick Mendelson's panache and never-say-die pugnacity conjure the spirit of songwriter George M. Cohan in Le Petit's production of George M!.