GEORGE M. COHAN TONIGHT! AT STONEHAM THEATRE

22Jun07

Stoneham production features forty Cohan tunes

I wonder how many students in school drama and musical theater classes today even know who George M. Cohan was. After all, Cohan wrote and performed in musicals that reflected patriotism and old-fashioned, traditional American values — themes that now seem out of favor, not just in academia, but in general.

But kids today really should know about George M. Cohan.

If ever an entertainer captured the American dream in song-and-dance form, it was Cohan. His was a true American rags-to-riches story. The son of immigrants, Cohan sang and danced his way from small-town Vaudeville theaters, onto Broadway and into songbooks with gems like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Here’s hoping that kids—-especially those interested in American musical theater history—-will find their way to see Stoneham Theatre’s current offering, George M. Cohan Tonight! Cohan was the dominant figure of American musical theater in the first thirty years of the 20th century, producing and starring in over three dozen Broadway shows between 1906 and 1926. The Stoneham show is a highly-entertaining crash course in American musical theater history.

Starring in this one-man-show is the enormously talented Jon Peterson as Cohan. Peterson eases the audience into what quickly becomes one of the most high-energy performances you’ll ever see, featuring nearly forty trademark Cohan songs along with plenty of tap-dancing and good old-fashioned showmanship. Peterson has the voice, the steps and the youthful energy to capture the charismatic Cohan, and by the end of the night, you may feel exhausted just watching this dynamo of a performer.

Peterson opens the show as Cohan dressed in a grey suit, red vest, red bow-tie and tap shoes, sporting a straw hat and a prop cane favored by the old-time Vaudeville performers. As Cohan, Peterson introduces the story of the great entertainer’s show business life, starting with his days on stage as an infant in the family act called the “Four Cohans,” co-starring with his parents and his sister.

In spoken narrative, but mostly in song and dance, Peterson becomes Cohan, telling his own story in a way that does not shortchange his accomplishments with false modesty. It was well-known that the only thing that matched Cohan’s talent was his ego. The man knew his worth and would never let anyone forget it.

The show is set in the prop room of a musical theater, with trunks, suitcases, lights and various stage props scattered about. It’s the only fitting setting for a story about George M. Cohan, for as he says in the show, the theater was his home. He never wanted to be anywhere else.

In fairness, the show isn’t just red, white and blue patriotic anthems. There’s plenty of Cohan’s softer, more romantic side, too. But it’s nice, if only for an evening, to return with George M. Cohan to an era when it was assumed that all Americans wanted to feel good about their country and the nobility of its role in the world.

George M. Cohan Tonight! runs through July 1, 2007 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham. For show times and tickets go online to http://www.stonehamtheatre.org/ or phone 781-279-2200.

[GEORGE M. COHAN TONIGHT! Written, arranged and directed by Chip Deffaa. Music and Lyrics by George M. Cohan. Choreography by Jon Peterson. Set Design, Lisa Pegnato. Music Director, Sterling Price-McKinney. Lighting Design, David Wilson. Sound Design, Ric Shapero. Production Stage Manager, Meghan Fisher. Production Manager, Dave Brown.]

This review originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item on June 20, 2007.

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