George M. Cohan Tonight! is based on the 2006 one-person stage play of the same name. In fact, the same crew — show director/co-writer/producer Chip Deffaa and co-writer/film director/star Jon Peterson — are the folks behind the cinematic adaptation. And don’t worry, even if one is unfamiliar with who the titular person is, well, that’s part of the point.
George M. Cohan (Peterson) died in 1942, at the age of 64. Now, Cohan haunts the Broadway theaters that were once his home, his calling, his passion. Understanding that those who see him as a specter (aka the audience) might not be familiar with who he is, Cohan launches into song and dance routines that explore his whole life. His parents were performers, so he was put in their shows by the time he could walk. He instantly fell in love with the business and forwent a traditional education, learning as he grew up.
While the name might not be a household name now, Cohan, at the height of his power, had something like three or four shows going at one time on the Great White Way. He also published over 300 songs, including modern classics such as “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re A Grand Ole Flag.” But George M. Cohan Tonight! is not just interested in trotting out the greatest hits of the “man who owned Broadway.” No, Deffaa and Peterson wish to get audiences to understand his motivations, appreciate how groundbreaking Cohan was, and learn a bit about his personal life.
“…Cohan haunts the Broadway theaters that were once his home…”
Of course, they do this by using several of Cohan’s songs, along with a few they penned to help move things along. This puts Peterson in a highwire act as if he fails to be believable or sincere, audiences will turn on the subject. Luckily, the actor is more than up to the task. At no point does another character appear, much less get a speaking line. Peterson puts it all out there, every emotional beat, each high note, all the dance numbers, and he hits the mark every time. It’s an outstanding feat of athleticism married to genuine pathos, resulting in something beautiful.
As a stage adaptation, George M. Cohan Tonight! Does fall prey to the worst element of such: it looks and feels like a stage adaptation, not a movie. Part of that does come down to the story structure, but that only explains things to a certain degree. Now and then, the director will use filters to stylize the shot to appear like it’s from a hand-cranked camera. Or some clever editing will only indicate when Peterson as Cohan is talking as someone else. This gives the film some visual pizzaz, but not a ton.
However, when the narrative is this compelling and the central performance so hypnotizing, it becomes a minor issue overall. George M. Cohan Tonight! is a loving tribute to an unsung, almost forgotten artist. It is brought to life vigorously by Peterson’s intense and dedicated performance. So, while he, as a director, never takes full advantage of the medium, Peterson does ensure that all those watching will be invested and care about the plight of Cohan. Now, excuse me while I go watch Cohan’s bio-pic Yankee Doodle Dandy.
"…an outstanding feat of athleticism married to genuine pathos..."