David Armstrong’s new take on the life of George M. Cohan, “Yankee Doodle Dandy!,” was a half-dozen years in the making, so the debut of this ultra-patriotic musical during wartime is nothing more than coincidence. However, theatergoers’ attitudes toward the U.S.’ current adventures abroad will no doubt color their responses to this wrapped-in-a-flag homage to Old Broadway. Supporters of the U.S. presence in Iraq will hoot and holler for classic, go-go-go American song-and-dance numbers like “Yankee Doodle Dandy!,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There,” while detractors will slump in their seats.
The hooters and hollerers definitely outnumbered the slumpers (or at least outvocalized them) on opening night. But the whole crowd fell quiet during portions of the second act, which has some serious pacing and plotting problems.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy!” is an attempt to tell the life story of musical pioneer Cohan (played as a young man by Sean Martin Hingston) without the whitewash of earlier versions. The tale is framed by scenes of an aged Cohan (Richard Sanders) visiting an old theater pal backstage in a darkened Broadway house in the 1940s.
The first act consists of Cohan’s recollections of his humble beginnings and fireworks-fast rise to success. He got his start early in the family business — vaudeville — as a member of the Four Cohans. By the time he was 20, he was literally running the show — and transforming the face of musical theater at the same time, by marrying story, music and dance.
This portion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy!” is wildly upbeat. Cohan’s admonition to his cast — “Speed, speed, and lots of it!” — seems to be the overriding principle. Hit song follows hit song (mostly Cohan’s, but with additional music and lyrics by Albert Evans) as we revisit scenes from some of Cohan’s most popular shows.
Sure, there are signs of trouble: Cohan is dangerously brash and driven, and his devotion to his family is shown to be nearly pathological. But the songs are showstoppers (“Yankee Doodle Boy!,” “Give My Regards to Broadway”); the sets and costumes (by James Wolk and Greg A. Poplyk, respectively) are fabulous; and Hingston’s performance as Cohan is inspired, maybe even evangelical. He has all the charisma of a prototypical Broadway wheeler-dealer and could sell a song to a tone-deaf man. Best of all, he’s an old-school tap-dancer — swaggering, nearly pugilistic — and this act is propelled by the kind of vintage hoofing (choreographed by Jamie Rocco) that built Broadway.
Hingston is matched tap for tap by a strong supporting cast, including Dirk Lumbard and Cynthia Ferrer, who play his parents, and Danette Holden, who plays his grin-till-you-grimace sister Josie. Act one culminates with the song “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” with the chorus waving the Stars & Stripes and a huge Old Glory unfurling behind them.
It’s a knockout moment, but after the intermission, the show has to work too hard to recapture this energy. Two problems: The first act is an hour and 40 minutes long, so the second act doesn’t even get under way until 10 p.m. And the shorter second act is much darker, switching focus from the young, can-do Cohan to the older Cohan mulling his failed marriages, broken friendships and his angst over his role in the labor unrest that led (against his wishes) to the formation of Actors’ Equity.
It’s tough at this point for the audience to switch its sympathy from the young Cohan to the old. By 10:45, the razzle-dazzle of the first act has fizzle-dizzled.
After its Seattle run, which closed May 16, “Yankee Doodle Dandy!” moves on to Atlanta and Dallas. And no doubt it has Broadway ambitions. (Members of the National Alliance of Musical Theater, who were in Seattle April 30-May 2 for a conference, were invited to the opening to give it the once-over.)
The show certainly will find fans as it travels, especially among theatergoers nostalgic for the footlight-and-greasepaint Broadway entertainments of yesteryear. But it’s uncertain whether rah-rah American fare can build a broader audience in these polarized times and, even if it can, whether “Yankee Doodle Dandy!” is a well-enough constructed vehicle to deliver it.