High Energy Show George M. Cohan Tonight! is a Knockout

WINTER PARK — Rather like an extravagant urban parade or a phenomenal light show around the holidays, the new Winter Park Playhouse production, George M. Cohan Tonight!, is a marvelous to watch and leaves you feeling exhilarated. Much of the credit for that goes to Adam Biner, a Playhouse regular who carries off the modern miracle of performing this one act show with so much passion, enthusiasm and spiritedness that the high energy show quickly becomes one of the Playhouse’s biggest triumphs of recent years.

The final production of their current season, this vibrant show lets the Winter Park musical theater go out with a bang, like a July 4 fireworks show that’s a lot more spectacular than you ever hoped it would be.

Closing out the theater’s 2023- 2024 Series of Professional Musicals, George M. Cohan Tonight! opened on Friday and continues through June 9.  

What is the Show George M. Cohan Tonight?

While musicals are known for large casts filled with soaring harmonies, a one man show doesn’t have to be a lonely affair — especially when you’ve got great material. The show, created as a tribute to the legendary singer, songwriter, and playwright, was written and arranged by Chip Deffaa and produced Off-Broadway by the Irish Repertory Theatre

Deffaa must have known he had amazing material to work with. Cohan was a legend in vaudeville, having spent his entire life in showbusiness, starting out by touring with his parents and sister, traveling the country in a popular song and dance act. It was the family’s entire life.

And not only did little George adapt to it quite quickly, but he was writing songs by age 4, became the best singer in the family, and eventually was managing their entire affairs — as a teenager! He wrote more than 50 shows and 300 songs in his lifetime, and it’s remarkable to this day how many have become standards, including “Over There,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” and the beloved classic “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” In 1942, the same year he died at age 64, Cohan’s life was immortalized in the Oscar-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney.

The show opens with the ghost of Mr. Cohan greeting the audience, then recounting his amazing life, starting with his birth on July 3, 1878 to a vaudeville family, and how from day one, he was always deeply immersed in one thing and one thing only: show biz. And boy oh boy was he made for that life.

How is The Winter Park Playhouse’s Production?

Working with first rate material that emphasizes just how dazzling Cohan’s life was, the Playhouse brings a lot of additional strengths to this production.

Biner is definitely one of them. A professional actor, singer, comedian and dancer who has appeared in past Playhouse shows such as Steppin’ Out with Irving Berlin, Crazy For Gershwin and in The Florida Festival of New Musicals, Biner has an energy level you may want to bottle and pull out on special occasions. The show calls for Biner, a la Cohan, to be everything audiences want in a musical — our narrator, singer, dancer and comedian — and he scores a home run on each one. Whether he’s performing Cohan’s legendary toe-tapping, feel good numbers, or giving us some eye-popping dance movies, this is a tour de force performance that’s a thrill to watch.

The same is true about Biner’s portrayal of Cohan — the boy who knew he had talent and could wow an audience, the teen deeply devoted to his family and their unique way of life, the young man becoming a savvy manager ready to get the best bookings for his entourage. Until the death of his beloved sister Josie in 1916, there isn’t much tragedy in Cohan’s life that he shares with us — but there sure is a lot of exhilaration as his popularity on Broadway is cemented. Biner captures every bit of that excitement and elation, and his performance has you totally captivated.

Credit as well does to Roy Alan, the theater’s artistic director, who directed this fast-paced 90 minute show and co-choreographed it with Biner, and the superb musical accompaniment by Christopher Leavy on piano, Ned Wilkinson on bass and Sam Forrest on percussion.  Every single ingredient that went into this production is nothing short of splendid.

Where Can I See George M. Cohan Tonight?

George M. Cohan Tonight! is being performed at The Winter Park Playhouse at 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park. The show runs for 90 minutes without an intermission.

Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30, Thursday, Friday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and select Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.   

Tickets cost $46 for evening shows, $43 for seniors attending evening shows, $39 for matinees, and $20 for students aged 15-25, active military and theatrical industry professionals. Student rush “$10@10” offers $10 tickets (for students 25 years and younger) 10 minutes prior to a performance when seats are available.

To purchase tickets or for more information call the box office at 407-645-0145 or visit online at www.winterparkplayhouse.org . 

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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