On Broadway, "George M!" was mainly a collection of songs hung on a personality - not so much that of George M. Cohan, whose life was getting the once-over-lightly, but that of Joel Grey, who was supposedly recreating the old Yankee Doodle Dandy himself.
At the Harlequin Dinner Theater, the work is quite surprisenly, something more a three-dimensional poem to the trouping spirit and the bruises it often sustains.
Originally, the musical was constructed around a couple dozen pre-existing Cohan songs and consequently breathed and air of arbitariness. But the staging by director choreographer David Bell reshapes the material with such originally and sophistication that this "George M!" has a chohesiveness Broadway never saw.
The show is still chock full of snow-biz razzma-tazz and those slam-bang Cohan numbers, written to be delivered front and center with hat and cane. Bell has his youthful, vigorous cast tap dancing to beat a couple of bands in "Give My Regards to Bradway," twirling a stageful of stars and stripes to "You're a Grand Old Flag," and brawling with true Irish gusto to "Harrigan." At such moments, "George M" as a spunky salute to the vaudeville spirit was the root inspiration of Cohan's art.
THE CAST, AS DISCIPLINED as any that has appeared at the Harlequin, beams with the sheer joy of performing and the kind of open-faced honesty that not only gets away with schmaltz, but makes it credible. Jim Sudik doesn't soft-pedal the heelish side of Cohan, but he acknowledges that even heels can have hearts now and again. The characterization is ultimately very likable.
Tony Gilbert, Barbara Walsh, Dee Sudik, Paula Sweeney, Pamela Bierly let's face it the entire crew is singing strongly, dancing brightly and looking mighty chipper.
This "George M! impresses me as very tidy work. Not content to revive what was fundamentally a mediocre Broadway vehicle, the Harlequinn has reinvented it. It's still entertainment for fun. But now the fun has form and flow. Things are far better for it.