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‘George M!’ a tap dancing delight at Flushing Town Hall

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“Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” was the name of George M. Cohan’s first Broadway triumph, back in 1906. The title referred to a 45-minute train ride from Grand Central to New Rochelle. How appropriate that if you head due east from Broadway today by the No. 7 subway and take a short walk to Northern Boulevard, you’ll reach Flushing Town Hall, just in time to see “George M!,” this year’s Broadway musical presentation of the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts.

How appropriate also that “George M!” was selected for this year’s show. The story of the rise of George Michael Cohan, from his Irish roots in Providence, to becoming the man “who owned Broadway,” is a realization of the American dream, the essence of what being American is about: having the freedom and opportunity to follow one’s goals to the fullest of one’s capability. America certainly needed that affirmation of its identity in wartime 1942, when Warner Brothers released Yankee Doodle Dandy, the film of George M. Cohan’s life. America certainly needed it in the dark days of Vietnam in 1968, when “George M!” premiered on Broadway. And we certainly can use it today, nine months after Sept. 11.

The Flushing production is a major triumph for the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, a testament to the hard work of Susan Agin, the producer and tireless house manager. Agin, a belter of songs in her own right, took on a Herculean task with this production, needing to assemble a cast that can sing, act, and dance, dance, dance.

Singing and tap-dancing is what “George M!” is all about. The book by famed Michael Stewart (who also wrote books for “Hello Dolly!” and “42nd Street”) follows Cohan’s life in episodes, from his ”punk kid” days in Rhode Island where he was baptized into his family’s vaudeville routine, to his young adult days when he forced his family to gamble with him by hitting the Great White Way, to his eventual retirement and attempted re-entry to Broadway. The tale is organized around musical milestones in Cohan’s output, as the actors play out the events of Cohan’s life that took place when each song was composed, just in time for the soloists and chorus assemble on stage around them to belt and tap the song out.

One reason this play is so rarely performed is the Herculean demands it places on its lead, George M. Cohan. He sings over a dozen songs, taps through almost as many dance routines, and must develop his punk character carefully so that he can win your heart. The real George M. Cohan personally selected James Cagney for the 1942 film, because of Cagney’s tough guy persona and his hoofing talent as an ex-vaudevillian. Joel Grey was the tiny superman of the 1968 Broadway premiere (which also featured the dynamic young Bernadette Peters).

The spotlight of the Flushing production falls on Fred Kaminski, Jr. I recall seeing Fred in a local production of “Bells Are Ringing,” thinking what a noodle the director was casting Fred in a chorus part when his talent radiated for miles. As George M., Fred uses his talent to the fullest: his energy is inexhaustible, his voice curls around the highest and lowest notes with ease, and he is a formidable tap dancer. As an actor, he was not always convincing as the punk kid, he was just too sweet to be a punk, à la Cagney. But he made up for that by a deeply moving account of his father’s death, and most of all, by his portrayal of Cohan’s sense of loss during retirement.

The standout of the supporting cast was Casey McClellan as Cohan’s father, a veteran actor and great tap dancer, displaying poise and a deeply felt characterization. Wendy Porter, Cohan’s mother, proved to me that she is ageless. I saw her only last fall as the delightful ingénue in Theater à la Carte’s production of “I Hate Hamlet.” Here she was the perfect mother and a great tap dancer!. Danielle Crinnion and Elisa Karnis, respectively as Cohan’s sister and first wife, also fine singers and dancers, used well their many opportunities for dramatic interplay with Cohan. As his second wife, Stacey McFaddin warmly provided the solace that Cohan needed after the end of his first marriage.

I was most impressed by Rebecca Greenstein’s star turn as Broadway star Fay Templeton. Every inch a diva, she turned in a most moving rendition of Mary, which forced me to my feet with a loud “Brava!” Andrew Quinn was excellent in the dual roles of Albee, the tough booking agent who gives the punk Cohan kid a piece of his mind, and then as Cohan’s supportive business partner Sam Harris. The rest of the cast, too numerous to name individually, and chorus performed with feeling and drive, always keeping the momentum up. I was disappointed that the Flushing Council did not actively seek out more local talent to use in the production. They seem bent on casting people from far and wide, with the only local performer I spotted was Cecilia Vaicels, in various bit roles and proving that local talent is genuine.

The director, Kevin Wallace, was also the choreographer, quite a heavy double-task, carried off admirably. The musical director, Seth Weinstein, was exceptional. His orchestra was precise and clear, never overpowering the events on stage, yet always audible, and never a beat was skipped.

“George M!” continues Friday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Saturday at noon and Sunday at 1 p.m. a special Father’s Day brunch is available prior to the show at a special show/brunch ticket price. The historic Flushing Town Hall is located at 137-35 Northern Blvd., between Main Street and Union Street. For information call, 463-7700, Ext. 222.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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