As the title character in the Quad City Music Guild's presentation of George M!, Kevin Pieper works his tail off. His Broadway impresario George Cohan belts out number after number, he tap dances, he storms through scenes with natural authority; in this musical-comedy biography, the role of Cohan is practically a show unto himself, and the energy that Pieper gives the part is admirable.
More often than not, though, it's energy in a void, because with precious few exceptions, the George M! ensemble isn't giving anything back. At any given time, there are up to 44 performers sharing the stage with Pieper, yet it takes little more than one hand to count the number of them who look pleased to be there. Thursday's preview performance, at least, showed Pieper having to work both the audience and the cast, and that's more responsibility than any single performer should be burdened with.
A few actors manage to lighten Pieper's considerable load. Harold Truitt and Pami Triebel are good-natured and lively as George's parents - the delightful Triebel pulls off a hell of an impressive high kick during "You're a Grand Old Flag" - and Susie Carsell-Schaechter, as his sister Josie, displays a naturalistic sweetness. When the quartet performs together (which, in the first act especially, is often), George M! is both enjoyable and sincere.
At first. But then, invariably, the chorus members - ostensibly there to give the number a "rousing" finish - will skulk on stage, plant themselves, sing, and look for all the world like they'd rather be anywhere else. (When they remember to, a few occasionally smile.) The listlessness of the ensemble not only saps the vigor of the group scenes but of the leads themselves; like Pieper's George, the other Cohans get overwhelmed by the collective lethargy - this is George M! in a vacuum.
Individually, the group isn't without talent - Melissa Anderson Clark briefly shows off her musical-comedy skills as a singing secretary, and Chuck McDoniel, as a flustered director, gives his lines eccentric oomph. But director Tom Swegle doesn't appear to have communicated what, exactly, he wants from the ensemble members as a whole - they look confused about why they're there, and incredibly ill-at-ease.
There's a scene here, set during a New Year's Eve party, when Truitt takes a moment to put on his reading glasses, and, for more than a few seconds, the show quietly dies - the other two dozen actors on stage, playing party guests, have been directed to do nothing but stare at Truitt and wait for him to accomplish this task. (No one even engages a fellow party-goer in a feigned "This is taking a long time" conversation.) Throughout George M!, the ensemble hasn't been directed to be alive. The chorus members seem petrified about standing out in the crowd, and as a result, don't do anything; when the Cohans aren't the sole focus, the show is lacking in both personality and instinct.
Every once in a while, a group scene does spring to life. The female ensemble performs a wonderful, invigorating tap routine in full flapper regalia - kudos to Cindy Breecher for the terrific costumes - and at one point, two cast members tap dance while skipping rope, a wildly entertaining sight that completely deserved its mid-song applause. Tap dancing, of course, is one of God's gifts to musical theatre, and its employment here rescues a bunch of numbers - that satisfying clickety-clickety-clack sound tends to make audiences unaccountably happy regardless of circumstance. (To their credit, the George M! cast taps quite well. They should follow Truitt's and Triebel's leads and look like they're enjoying it more.)
Yet Swegle, who continually places his actors in flat, chorus-line configurations, doesn't do much to enliven the book scenes - oftentimes, he splits the focus between two (or even three) points of focus so we don't know what we're supposed to be looking at - and he can't disguise the overriding sense of fear on stage; sadly, he hasn't given the actors much reason to not look fearful.
To be fair, much of the disappointment of George M! lies beyond Music Guild's production of it. We're given no insight into how the central character became "the man who owned Broadway" - surely it took more than sheer gumption? - and the libretto feels strangely incomplete; audiences have to take Cohan's legendary patriotism on faith, as George M! barely acknowledges it. Despite the tuneful score, George M!, in itself, doesn't seem a very strong show. But given Music Guild's earnest but underwhelming efforts, I wasn't fooled - as I should have been - into thinking otherwise.
For tickets, call (309)762-6610.