August 4, 2008

New Musical at the Ordway Tells the Story of George M. Cohan

By Dominic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Aug. 4--A decade ago, give or take, James Rocco and a few friends were on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, discussing a biography of legendary showman George M. Cohan that most of them had been reading.

"There was a story," said Rocco, now the producing artistic director of St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, "about how he got out of his sickbed, insisting that his nurse take him to all the places he had hung out on Broadway, and then to see 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' (the 1942 film based on his life). And then he basically went home and died, but not before he gave his regards to Broadway."

It seemed to Rocco that the story of Cohan, considered by some to be the father of American musical comedy, should itself be the stuff of a musical. And so, in the summer of 2000, he, as choreographer -- along with writer/director David Armstrong -- brought "Yankee Doodle" to the Gateway Playhouse, a summer stock theater on New York's Long Island.

The writeup from the New York Times was mixed, but Rocco and his collaborators figured it wasn't a bad result for a few months work. And so, Rocco -- now helming the production as a director -- is bringing a version of "Yankee Doodle" to the Ordway, a production that more closely hews to the creative team's hopes and dreams for the show.

Rocco thinks "Yankee Doodle" could have a life beyond the Ordway -- producers and representatives of other theaters are expected to drop in over the course of the show's brief run in St. Paul. He also thinks the show could be a springboard to a more active Ordway role on the regional and national landscape as a creative engine for musical theater.

Ordway President Patricia Mitchell said the center wants to bring a wide variety of entertainment to a wide swath of audiences, and that developing new musicals -- in addition to presenting familiar Broadway fare -- could be viable for the future of the center.

"One of the really powerful reasons to be in the producing business," she said, "is being more in control of your own fate and not just having to depend on what's coming in from the road, which is ... well, at the very least, one is not in control of it."

For Rocco, the potential is there, both for the Ordway and the world of musical theater.

"There's no theater that has really stepped forward with musical theater in the way the Guthrie and others have with nonmusicals in saying, 'We will be the curators of the future,'" he said. "If the audiences here want that, they'll come, and we can become a national center for musical theater."

What: "Yankee Doodle"

When: Previews Tuesday and Wednesday; opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 17

Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

Tickets: $71.50-$36.50 Call: 651-224-4222


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