Hallelujah! The Goodspeed Opera House is back in top form. After too many so-so and worse productions culminating in the disastrous “Man of La Mancha” that began its current season, the intimate Victorian theater on the banks of the Connecticut River is atoning for its sins in the best way possible, whipping up a Yankee doodle dandy of a revival of Broadway’s 1968 biographical musical “George M!”
With a terrific cast that can actually sing, dance and act; fast-paced, seamless direction and choreography; and a glorious flurry of period costumes, the Goodspeed proves beyond doubt that there’s life in the old corn yet as it pays affectionate tribute to old-time vaudeville and musical comedy via the life of legendary showman George M. Cohan. It’s a humdinger of a production that immediately evokes Goodspeed’s glory days, which included revivals of such Cohan musicals as “45 Minutes From Broadway” in 1973 and “Little Johnny Jones” in 1980. “George M!” may not be one of Broadway’s all-time great musicals, but you wouldn’t know it from this inspired revival. The audience can scarcely refrain from singing and clapping along with its string of Cohan standards.
Director Greg Ganakas and choreographer Randy Skinner have worked hand in hand so that book scenes and dance scenes flow together seamlessly. Skinner rings endlessly inventive changes on period tap-dancing and high-stepping with the help of Gaiety Girls and butterfly dancers. The helming duo has good musical material to work with, of course, plus an expert cast headed by John Scherer as that loud-mouthed steamroller Cohan.
This is a double-jeopardy role because it’s haunted not only by the legend of Cohan himself but also by James Cagney’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Cohan in the 1942 movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Projecting all the brash egotism plus charm necessary to play Cohan, and readily capturing his strutting walk and dance style, Scherer is best in act two, when he ages convincingly without the help of makeup. But he’s just fine in the first act, ably putting across the finale of “Give My Regards to Broadway” (from “Little Johnny Jones”), in which Cagney is so remarkable in his movie.
Scherer’s is a performance of nonstop energy and flair that anchors and illuminates the entire production, not least in a fisticuffs performance of “Harrigan” with Frank Root and a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” that begins as a solo and is then augmented by six chorus-girl drummers.
Scherer is surrounded by excellent performers, beginning with Root, Dorothy Stanley and Liz Pearce as his father, mother and sister, respectively. Also fine are Jennifer Smith as Ethel Levey and Tia Speros as a vibrant Agnes Nolan. Jennifer Goode, as Fay Templeton, fills the theater with her soaring soprano voice in “Mary’s a Grand Old Name.” Notable, too, are Dale Hensley as both Albee and Sam Harris and Shonn Wiley.
Howard Jones has supplied a parade of backstage and onstage sets that are gracious enough to play second fiddle to John Carver Sullivan’s bouquet of costumes. Dan DeLange’s orchestrations and the orchestra that plays them under Michael O’Flaherty’s direction are also splendid. In other words, all’s right with the world at Goodspeed.