IF YOU GO
What: Musical about George M. Cohan, the father of American musical theater
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday & selected matinees through Feb. 14.
Where: 1380 Colonial Boulevard, Fort Myers (in Royal Palm Square)
Cost: Sunday through Friday evenings $49, Saturday evenings $53. Matinees $47. Show only $27. 12 and younger $21
Information: 239-278-4422 or broadwaypalm.com
Something Else: Ticket prices include meal & show; show-only tickets available
1380 Colonial Boulevard, Fort Myers, FL
FORT MYERS — On paper, a musical about George M. Cohan, father of American musical theater, seems a good idea. There's tunes like "Give My Regards to Broadway" and the patriotic anthem "You're a Grand Old Flag." In practice, not even the considerable charms of leading man John Ramsey and what seems like an entire department store full of costumes can rescue Broadway Palm's latest offering, "George M!," from being a bit of - well - an interesting mess.
Cohan was Broadway royalty. His first show, the patriotic "Little Johnny Jones," written in 1904 - when he was just 26 - spawned showstoppers "Give My Regards" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy." His career as an actor, singer, writer, dancer and producer lasted into the 1940s; there's even a statue to him in Times Square. So why then, is "George M!" such an puzzle?
Mostly because the show, created by Michael Stewart and John and Fran Pascal, never really explores what made Cohan tick. Moreover, by leaning entirely on Cohan's own tunes, "George M!" is just a jukebox musical with 100-year-old songs. Jukebox musicals, such as "Mamma Mia" or "Ring of Fire," trade heavily on the emotional connections audiences had with the songs. For "George M!," that's hard to do when the tunes were written and performed several decades before the Great Depression.
"George M!" shoehorns pieces of Cohan's music and scenes from his shows into his life - with some interesting results. The resulting pastiche is a mishmash of vaudeville tap numbers, grand showstoppers and a few scenes where a Cohan song is used in an unexpected and interesting way. The best of these is a charming sequence with a montage of numbers from "Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway" that shows Cohan hoodwinking star Fay Templeton into starring in the show.
At best, the show is interesting and thought-provoking, if only for its too-short glimpses into what working in show business must have been like in the early part of this century. At worst, it paints George M. Cohan as a driven, egomaniacal workaholic without really telling the audience how he got to be that way.
Cohan's raison d'etre was to entertain; a vaudeville performer at heart, he loved to sing, to dance and give 'em the old razzle-dazzle. Ramsey, a long-time Broadway Palm favorite, is perfect for the role. He seems to be surrounded by a halo of light above and beyond any spotlight, bouncing, bounding, tapping, clacking, running up the walls and flashing a grin a mile wide. Put him in a top hat and tails, give him a cane and drop him in 1879 and he'd do just fine.
Yet, for all his manic energy, the show's best scene comes with nary a spectacle in sight. Near the end, after Cohan comes out of retirement for an acting job, he tries to return to his old song-and-dance style and is rebuffed by a young assistant who forcefully reminds him that times have changed. In those moments, Ramsey reaches for the heartache of anyone who's ever outlived a dream and watched the world pass him by.
"George M!" offers a limited peak inside the mind of one of Broadway's earliest kings. The show trades heavily on bombastic tunes that have long passed out of today's moving-at-lightspeed pop culture but still offers a jolt of recognition for their pure Broadway "fun." Same for the costumes and sets, especially the nods to Cohan's patriotic leanings. And Ramsey's performance is, in a word, fantastic.