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 in, quite surprisenly, something more - a three-dimensional poem to the trouping spirit and the bruises it often sustain.

Originially, the musical was constructed around a couple dozen pre-existing Cohan songs and consequently breathed an air of arbitariness. But the staging by director/choreographer David Bell reshapes the material with such originality and sophistication that this "George M!" has a chohesiveness Broadway never saw.

The show is still chock full of show-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 heat a couple of bands in "Give My Regards to Broadway," 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" is a spunkly salute to the vaudeville spirit that was the root inspiration of Cohan's art.

THE CAST AS DISCIPLINED as any that be 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 Sudil doesn't soft-pedal the beelish side of Cohan, but he acknowledges that even heeds can have hearts now and again. The characteristion 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 Harlequin has reinvented it. It's still entertainment for fun. But now the fun has form and flow. Things are far better for it.

The Harlequin

340-8515

Held over'til Sept. 3rd.