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Paulanne Simmons

The Irish Repertory Pays Tribute to a Yankee Doodle Boy

Jon Peterson in "George M. Cohan Tonight!" at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

"George M. Cohan Tonight!"
Directed by Chip Deffaa
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves.
Opened March 9, 2006
Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Wed., Sat and Sun. matinees at 3 p.m.
$40, $45 (212) 727-2737
Closes April 23, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 7, 2006

In the program notes to "George M. Cohan Tonight!" writer and director Chip Deffaa says, "At first I planned to write a book about [George M Cohan] but his life was so theatrical, his songs so rich and rousing and varied, I felt his story is better told on stage." A wise decision. But equally fortunate was Deffaa's choice of triple threat Jon Peterson to play the multi-talented Cohan.

Peterson's voice has a lyric beauty. Although it is neither powerful nor big enough to fill even the small Irish Repertory Theatre, by the end of the show, Peterson's warmth and sincerity, to say nothing of his fabulous dancing, makes this failing seem almost insignificant.

Dressed in spats and straw hat, Peterson, walks onto a stage strewn with trunks, suitcases and crates, evoking the vagabond life of vaudevillians. In a captivating performance he tells the story of Cohan's rise from the son of vaudeville players ("I thought all parents sang and danced") to the most popular (and wealthiest) writer, singer, actor, dancer director and producer of his era, a performer who inspired the likes of Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein II, and made the melodramatic Victorian play a thing of the past.

Peterson sings and dances to more than two dozen songs including the sentimental "Ireland: My Land of Dreams," the playful "Harrigan," the exuberant "Give My Regards to Broadway," and those ever popular patriotic tunes, "The Yankee Doodle Boy," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There," the World War I song that may have been far more effective at recruitment than all those famous "Uncle Sam Wants You" posters. In a particularly delightful segment, Paterson plays the vaudeville vamp, Ada Tashman, who almost seduced the young Cohan.

At one point in the show Cohan says, "Song and dance men never get the blues." But of course they do. After two failed marriages, numerous infidelities, the death of his sister and parents and the beginning of his own decline, Cohan, that immensely talented egotist, like many people toward the end of their life, is filled with regrets. Paterson portrays Cohan's decline as gracefully as he handles his rise.

George M. Cohan Tonight is a thoughtful and entertaining tribute to the only entertainer Americans thought enough of to award the Congressional Meal of Honor.

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