Just when you think director Mary Doveton can't possibly mount a bigger musical in Lawrence Community Theatre's space, along comes "George M!" Packed with stage-filling production numbers, this fast-paced show presents 26 of George M. Cohan's songs, strung together by the storyline of the arc of Cohan's ego and audacity.
Mark Skolaut does a marathon job of portraying the cocky title character. Continuously onstage throughout, he belts out song after song, twirling the trademark Cohan cane. Listen for his line early in the show, "Give it the Cohan touchspeed, lights, music," because that's just what this musical does.
Each of the other Cohans turns in a strong performance. Charles Goolsby gives a nicely nuanced interpretation of father Jerry Cohan. As his wife Nellie, Barb Wasson's command of stage movement is a treat to watch. Jennifer Forman as Josie tempts you to agree with producer Albee's first assessment of the "Four Cohans" act: "I'll take the girl."
There are too many good individual performances to name. Kendra Verhage conveys the emotional conflicts of George's first wife - and she sparkles in the funny "Pushcart." Amanda Wehner wins the audience with her warm portrayal of George's patient second wife. Sixth-grade phenomenon Lexie Hofer acts, dances and sings "Down By the Erie Canal" like a veteran. Theater newcomer Sarah Heier, with a lovely clear soprano, gives a glamorous turn as early-1900s star Fay Templeton. Mark Mackie as a harried director is spot-on. And Uta Walter drew the opening night's only applause not prompted by a song, with her killing "exotic Turkish dance" sketch.
You can't miss the stunning avalanche of costumes, from early 1900s period outfits to explosions of red, white and blue for the big production numbers. Jane Pennington designed them all, backed by a platoon of volunteers with needle and thread.
Choreographer Barb Wasson's routines keep the stage lively, as most of the cast of 22 break into tap dancing at the slightest hint of music. Even scene changes can be danced: Watch the actor-stagehands prepare the ocean-liner gangplank for the "Give My Regards to Broadway" number at the close of Act One.
Musical director Judy Heller has assembled a strong vocal cast, with too many good solo performances to name. Jack Riegle's sets are effective but minimal, leaving room for the big cast to fill the stage. The upstage flat, with sheet-music covers of Cohan's songs, is exquisitely painted by Mary Ann Saunders and Sonya Becker.
Ron Chinn's lighting ingenuity also contributes, as a scrim covers the flat from time to time, with projections of Broadway lights, American flags, etc. appearing on it.