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STAGE REVIEW : 2 Shows Share Bill but Fail to Add Up to Much at Welk Resort Theatre

“George M!,” a musical ode to the late showman George Michael Cohan, is the kind of musical that the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” himself would have liked--not too deep, but with lots of dancing, singing and vaudevillian shtick gliding on the surface like an emotional Ice Capades.

Does the hero need a few tears to make him even more lovable? Let’s have his wife leave him, for the “crime” of being a workaholic. In a celebratory scene of theater success, he shows his generosity by signing over half of his royalties to his father, while the next Mrs. Cohan-to-be stares at him with adoring goo-goo eyes.

If Cohan would have liked the script, he certainly would have loved the songs, a winning score culled from the many hits he wrote: “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Mary” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

But the show itself, which plays at the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre through March 11, teases rather than pleases with intimations of the complex man behind the simplicity of his presentation.

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Who was this George M. Cohan, really? Only a brief, careful outline of facts is revealed in this tribute. He was born into a vaudevillian family at the turn of the century, by the age of 9 stepped into the act of “The Four Cohans,” by 23 had expanded his first vaudeville sketch into a Broadway musical, and, by 26, had scored the first of what would turn out to be dozens of Broadway hits that later earned him a reputation as the father of American musical comedy theater.

He did end up outliving his popularity, however. His last four shows, all of which he starred in, were failures. And, despite the lingering popularity of his songs, few of his musicals are ever revived.

Just as audiences in Cohan’s later years expected more sophistication from the impresario than he was able to give, it is hard to imagine the modern audience that wouldn’t find “George M!,” which played Broadway in 1968, lacking. Forget psychological complexity. This play not only doesn’t have answers, it hasn’t even figured out there are questions.

Why was Cohan so driven to create songs and musicals? Because he desperately needed to rescue his family’s act from being hopelessly mediocre? Where did his tremendous confidence come from that allowed him to be bashed by critics year after year and still know--until near the end--how to give the public what they wanted?

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And did he lie about his birthday (July 3 instead of July 4) simply to pass himself off as the Yankee Doodle Boy born on Independence Day? Was the source of all the patriotism that inspired his flag-waving songs and routines the real thing, or were they done for effect because he knew what would sell?

And where and when was the child born who helped compile and revise this material? Poignantly, that daughter, Mary Cohan, must have realized herself that she didn’t fit into a neat picture frame when she omitted herself from the story.

One thing a consummate showman like Cohan wouldn’t have liked is the Welk sending in a nearly inaudible understudy as Cohan’s first wife at the Sunday matinee, with a script in hand, without so much as an apology or a pre-show warning of how unprepared the understudy would be.

With all that pitted against it, the show still nearly redeems itself by presenting an opportunity to hear those highly hummable Cohan melodies one more time. Donn Simione as Cohan, Sherri Sperling Bannister as Cohan’s sister, Josie, and Suzan Meier as Broadway star Fay Templeton, all deliver vocally. Randy Doney ages gracefully as Cohan’s father, Jerry, the older vaudevillian, and Cynthia Gray is lovely and appealing as the actress Cohan hired who got recast as his wife.

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If Rob Barron’s direction isn’t deep, his choreography is deft and Simione and Bannister, in particular, tap dance in style. The mystery of this production is why such rich raw material could not have generated a more satisfying show.

Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday--Saturday with matinees at 1:45 Tuesday--Thursday and Sunday at 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido.

“Catch Me If You Can,” which alternates with “George M!” at the Lawrence Welk through Feb. 18, is a mystery of another sort--a whodunit that aspires to run in the tradition of “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap.”

A man’s wife disappears on their honeymoon. A priest returns the wife only to have the man declare, horrified, that the woman isn’t his wife and is only posing in the part to kill him and get his insurance money. Can the man get Inspector Levine to believe him? Can the woman get the inspector to believe her? And will poor Sidney, who delivers sandwiches to this quarrelsome couple, end up looking like one of his own Swiss cheeses with a little bit of catsup on the side?

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No more hints--as those who guess the killer correctly during intermission are in the running to win a golfing weekend at the Welk.

There are more holes in the plot than in that very same golf course, but none that couldn’t be danced over by a nimble-enough cast.

Unfortunately, the actors here lack chemistry, with the strongest characterizations, alas, falling to the bit players. The play cries out for larger-than-life star turns, but Harold MacPherson Jr. does the best with a dandy Jack Gilford-like interpretation of Sidney the sandwich man, and Fred Bailey finishes a strong second with his suspiciously beatific Irish priest.

The usually exquisite Rosina Widdowson-Reynolds had a chance to smolder here as the wife, in Kathleen (“Body Heat”) Turner style; instead, she maintains a cool aloofness as if she’d rather be someplace else. Nonnie Vishner as Inspector Levine could use more Detective Columbo in his homey delivery. As the man who’s seeking his missing wife, John Shull pours on the anxiety but without a sense of inner direction that would make the portrayal memorable.

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All of which makes the lingering question not who dunit, but why couldn’t they have dunit better?

Performances at 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Sunday with matinees at 1:45 p.m. Monday, Friday and Saturday at 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido.


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