George M. Who?

By Leslie Turner

We're sitting in the Derby Dinner Playhouse, entranced by the development of the characters, believing the brash, unyielding confidence of Jim Hesselman as George, loving the vaudevillian flavor of the characters and costumes, being pulled into the story like a hooked trout, and my husband leans over and says, "This is great, but I really don't get it -- did this really happen? Just like most of you, he's wondering, "George who?"

I've heard you can tell how large and important a comet is by how many years its trail can be seen after it has passed by. Perhaps it is also true you can tell how large and important a composer is by how many years after his passing we continue to sing his songs and hum the tunes.

George M! cast members, left to right, Bill Hanna, Sandra Simpson, Jim Hesselman and Barbara Cullent.

If this is true, George M. Cohan was very large and important indeed. Problem. Everybody knows the songs, nobody knows the name (unless you're over 50 or grew up with show tunes blaring in your ear like me). "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Over There," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and dozens of other patriotic tunes have seen us through two world wars and millions of school concerts and recitals over the years. "Give My Regards to Broadway" is a classic, and personified the influence Cohan had on Broadway itself from its very beginnings.

"George M!" is the musical about the man, although we are all probably more familiar with the motion picture, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (oh, that guy!). Smartly staged and produced, you'll find this musical much more enjoyable knowing from the start who it is about. It will save you a lot of effort at the beginning so you can relax and enjoy the character portrayals, story, and of course the show-stopping musical classics.

Sandra Simpson, as George's mother Nellie, and Bill Hanna as father Jerry Cohan were a joy to watch as they aged sixty years in a couple of hours. Actually, the first twenty years only took a few minutes! Tap sequences were also enjoyable, mostly due to their rarity in more recent musicals. This is a fun production to watch. The leading character isn't Prince Charming, the plot is based on truth and, therefore, not as predictable as you may expect, and the actors succeeded in pulling off a challenging job between mostly unfamiliar story lines, a fast-paced time line and character development based on real people in real scenes with real problems. (I didn't know Cohan wrote "H-A-R-R-I-G-A-N"!)

Also of note were the Barnstormers. They were the best I had ever seen them. Staging was more fun, songs more entertaining and singing as good as always. Also, they tickled us with a taste of "A Chorus Line," coming up later this summer.

"George M!" continues through July 17 at Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind. Reservations can be made by calling 812-288-8281.