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Theatre review: Musical Theatre West’s Yankee Doodle Dandy

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Photo by Caught in the Moment Photography
From left: David Engel (Jerry), Tro Shaw (Josie), Adam Wylie (George) and Cynthia Ferrer (Nellie) in Musical Theater West’s Yankee Doodle Dandy

July is the perfect month to enjoy Musical Theatre West’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, continuing at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through the 22nd. This patriotic celebration of one of the founding fathers of Broadway musicals will have you tapping your toes and singing well known songs along with its stellar cast.

Different from the 1942 biopic of the same title, this story by David Armstrong portrays the musical life of George M. Cohan through many of his original songs, including “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There,” taken from the dozens of Broadway musicals he wrote during the first decades of the 20th century. The play’s patriotic emphasis stems from his popular 1904 song “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” taken from his first hit, “Little Johnny Jones,” about an American jockey who goes to England.

A very sprightly Adam Wylie portrays Cohan as enthusiastic, prolific and talented in voice and dance (especially tap dancing), but whose drive (and dalliances) cost him his first wife Ethel (Cassie Simone) and their young daughter.
The story is told in flashback by a much older Cohan (David Allen Jones), prompted by a visit to his old Broadway theatre. We see him reflect on his life, beginning with his very early career as an integral part of The Four Cohans– a successful vaudevillian troupe that also included his father Jerry (David Engel), mother Nellie (Cynthia Ferrer) and sister Josie (Tro Shaw).

The flashback structure allows us to see the younger Cohan strive to his realize his ambitions with the help of longtime associate Sam Harris (Matthew Kacergis). Along the way, we enjoy his highly lyrical, witty songs and a lot of energetic tap dancing, accompanied by a live on-stage orchestra (smartly conducted by Jeff Rizzo).

The first half is mainly driven by these musical scenes, the story taking a back seat until the big actor’s strike of 1919 in the second half. Looking back, though, the reminiscing older Cohan only feels the strike’s financial pain rather than appreciating its purpose, still grumbling that he had paid actors for their rehearsal time, unlike other producers.

Though it doesn’t portray Cohan as a man who learned much about treating people fairly, the play inspires awe of his immense and fertile talent, especially in his changing the very fabric of musical theatre with “book musicals”– stories cut from whole cloth rather than simply songs and skits stitched together.

Director and choreographer James Rocco showcases Cohan’s genius not only through uniformly excellent performances but also enchanting lighting (Paul Black) and luscious period costumes (Cecilia Gutierrez) that seem to bring Cohan’s theatre posters to life. Many recent productions indebted to Cohan’s book-musical concept, such as Chicago and Hamilton, are lovingly paraded in the last scene.

The grandson of Irish immigrants reputedly born on July 4, the innovative Cohan certainly fits the patriotic bill. As he says at one point (drawing audience cheers), “We are the only country in the world with a welcome sign.” Extend the fireworks a little longer with Yankee Doodle Dandy and be reminded of what makes this country special.

Musical Theatre West’s Yankee Doodle Dandy continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton Street, through July 22, with performances Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm & 6pm. Tickets start at $20. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or visit musical.org.

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Theatre review: Musical Theatre West’s Yankee Doodle Dandy