By Joseph Hurley
GEORGE M! Directed by Kevin Wallace. Starring Fred Kaminski, Casey McClellan, Wendy Porter, Danielle Crinnion, Elisa Karnis, Stacey McFadin, Andrew Quinn and Rebecca Greenstein. Produced by the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts. At Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Blvd., Flushing, N.Y. Through June 16.
The public address system at Flushing Town Hall, where a vividly full-throttle revival of the Broadway success, “George M!” is holding forth through this Sunday’s matinee, in announcing the performance, after the usual warnings about cell phones and recording devices, called the show “the musical that celebrates America.”
True enough, but the declaration probably wouldn’t have been worded quite that way before 9/11, nor would people exposed to the show before the destruction of the World Trade Towers have been likely to react to a moment late in the show in quite the manner that audiences at the elegantly restored old Flushing Town Hall are doing.
That reaction, an outburst of spontaneous applause, occurs when the curtain rises to reveal the entire company clad in vibrant red, white and blue, several members wearing variants of the flag itself, complete with stars and stripes.
“George M!” which opened at Broadway’s Palace Theatre on April 10, 1968, was conceived as a vehicle for actor Joel Grey, who had achieved stardom less than two years earlier with his portrayal of the decadent master of ceremonies in the original production of “Cabaret.”
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It is, to put it directly, nothing more than a slightly lopsided ramble through the more significant events of the life of the great Irish-American showman George Michael Cohan, who lived from 1878 until 1942, achieving an exalted position in the legitimate theater after a childhood career as the youngest member of a popular vaudeville act comprising his father, his mother and his sister.
“George M!” is, at its heart, an excuse for a lot of affable tap dancing and an occasion to hear the enduring, life-affirming and often intensely patriotic songs that earned Cohan a healthy measure of theatrical immortality: “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Harrigan,” “Mary,” and all the rest of them.
The seldom revived musical, concocted mainly by book writer Michael Stewart and director/choreographer Joe Layton, now both deceased, is a somewhat sugar-coated account of Cohan’s life. By all accounts, the diminutive actor-composer made a distinct point of filling his company exclusively with performers of short stature, in order to make himself appear to be taller than he actually was.
He was, after all, the boss of everything he did after his fame had reached a certain intensity, but his dictatorial instincts and his lack of patience combined with his desire for what he thought of as perfection to induce people who had actually worked with him to portray him as something of a tyrant.
But reality isn’t, generally speaking, the stuff of which Broadway successes are made, so “George M!” presents us with a George M. Cohan who is, despite being a bit bossy and much too preoccupied with work to forge a conventionally workable marriage, a fairly likeable fellow at heart.
Any production of the show stands or falls on the strength of the actor playing the title role, and director Kevin Wallace, who was also responsible for the production’s energetic choreography, has been fortunate in the casting of the Indiana-born Fred Kaminski Jr. as Cohan.
The ghost of James Cagney, who won an Academy Award for playing the role in director Michael Curtiz’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in 1942, threatens to hover over the performance of anyone coming anywhere near striking distance of the Cohan story.
The youthful Kaminski acts well, dances nimbly, and sings at the very least acceptably, generating enough energy and enthusiasm to more than compensate for any shortcomings he may exhibit. He also manages to keep the audience’s memories of the great Cagney pretty much at bay.
Casey McClellan and Wendy Porter provide solid support as Cohan’s parents, Jerry and Nellie, while Danielle Crinnion is a standout as the star’s sister, Josie.
Elisa Karnis is solid as Cohan’s neglected first wife, Ethel, and Stacey McFadin is softly sympathetic as Agnes Nolan, the Massachusetts girl who fit more comfortably into the actor’s life and whom he eventually married.
Fay Templeton, a dowager-like star during the early years of Cohan’s popularity, a much-admired performer who introduced the Cohan song “Mary,” is done to an imperious fare-thee-well by the imposing Rebecca Greenstein, while Andrew Quinn supplies an impressive string of collaborators, agents and colleagues.
Special mention should be made of designer Sherry Kfare’s ever-changing panoply of appealing and evocative costumes, including, in addition to the aforementioned flag-inspired number, a black-and-white scene that constitutes a modest homage to Cecil Beaton’s unforgettable clothes for the “Ascot Gavotte” number in “My Fair Lady.”
Pianist Seth Weinstein, conducting from the keyboard, heads the show’s versatile eight-piece musical ensemble.
“George M!” is only the second musical to grace the handsome stage of Flushing’s painstakingly refurbished Town Hall, completed at a cost of some $8 million over the course of the better part of a decade.
The George M. Cohan musical biography, “George M!” turns out to have been a sterling choice for the group’s show at this particular moment in time.
“George M!” plays Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, with matinees Saturday and Sunday.