George M. Coban's buoyant words and music continue to be the strength of that tawdry stage portrait titled "George M!" The Harlequin Dinner Theater is giving it the old school try, but the sprawling format never manages to suggest why Cohan was "The Man Who Owned Broadway," as John McCabe called his Cohan biography.

The book by Michael Stewart and John and Fran Pascal received the implied if baffling endorsement of Cohan's daughter, Mary, who helped compile the 30-odd songs. Concentraling on Cohan's dislikable personal traits, the script allows nothing for the unique charm which made him a widely loved performer. Snatches of so many songs allow for some dull ones, introduced without reason. The musical bowed in '63, when feet of clay were becoming stylish.

Although his portrait was less Irish than Catskills, Joel Grey brought his own undeniable charm to the role on Broadway, which disguised some of the book's curse. Grey's performance went against the harsh grain of the portrait and Joe Layton's staging and choreography were whammy embellishments to the grant rhythmical score.

Alas, the resourceful Hampton King's arrangements at Harlequin are limited to a trio, with the result that songs tend to sound alike. It's not the fault of Jim Tam and Mike Bass, who complete the trio with King.

Nor is the choreography for the cast of 15 by director David Bell especially varied, though such numbers as "Give May Regards to Broadway," "So Long Mary," "Harrigan," "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag" bring down the house as they always have.

Jim Sudik, in th title part, is so effortful that he neglects to charm us with the ease which made audiences Coham's captives. The book's weakness, therefore, is more exposed than concealed. To use one of Cohan's famed lines, on might ask "What's all the shooting fer?"

Pamela Bierly's voice and presence enhance Agnes Nolan, Cohan's second wife, and Dee Sudik gives polish to sister Josie, though she, like all tries too frantically. With this one, the hitherto reliable Harlequin has slipped a cog.