THE UNITED STATES of America, by the turn of the century, was no longer that new little country on the other side of the Atlantic. It had proven its might in the Spanish-American War and was well on the way to becoming a major world power. To this setting of jingoism and unbridled national pride came George M. Cohan, singer, dancer, and playwright, with more than a touch of the patriotic. Little Johnny Jones, his 1904 musical celebrating the expansive American spirit might find audiences as appreciative today as 80 years ago with the occasion of its revival at the Goodspeed Opera House.
Gerald Gutierrez's adroit direction prevents the basic plot-line of a jockey's love for an heiress from ever dragging. He adds dimensions to the characters, allowing them to transcend their early 1900s conventions. Goldie Gates, the madcap heiress from San Francisco (Maureen Brennan), trails her love, Johnny Jones (Donny Osmond), across a continent and an ocean, not out of subservience, but from a need to fulfill her own desires. She appears to us as assertive intelligent, and independent.
Anthony Anstey (Peter Van Norden) emerges not only as a too finely tailored and too fully fed villainous wheeler-dealer, but in Gutierrez's vision he becomes a Brechtian figure of American corruption. Goldie's aunt and guardian, Mrs. Kensworth (Anna McNeely), the kind, matronly refugee from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, foreshadows the decadence of the roaring '20s. Her and Anstey's affectations, their overladenness with jewels, and their presumed moral superiority add a touch of the gilded future America would find in store.
It's hard to imagine an exile from popular culture succeeding in drama, but following the lead of Bowie and Ronstadt, Osmond more than holds his own. He has a generally pleasant voice, and his dancing is quite good. The Johnny Jones role calls for a star quality performer to carry the show along. His acting ability might be negligible, yet few can question the value of Osmond's 19 years in the business. Charisma enables him to support the burden of the show, becoming a center of gravity around which the other actors can spin merrily. Maybe only Donny with his squeaky clean image could believably defend honor and country and still compliment his gal with, "French pastry ain't worth thirty cents compared to Apple Pie."
Osmond receives solid, but never overpowering support, from a superb chorus. They all nimbly dance their way through Dan Siretta's inventive choreography. Siretta does not recreate the dances of the period, but rather their style, which makes it easier for a modern audience to appreciate them. Cohan's score offers delights other than the songs which went on to become American institutions. He could write not only belt-em-outs, but gentle ballads like "Life's a Funny Proposition," done subtlely and straightforwardly by Osmond, and wonderful comic creations such as "Captain of a Ten Day Boat" a parody of all those tongue-twisting Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, which Jack Bittner delivers impeccably. Eddie Sauter and Mack Schlefer's orchestrations add greatly to the period flavor.
OSMOND IS fortunate to be surrounded by accomplished stage professionals. Peter Van Norden brings Anthony Anstey to disreputable life. Ernie Sabella does a hilarious burlesque comic turn. As the kooky Mrs. Kenworth, Anna McNeely is a model of repressed Edwardian sexuality ready to burst at her ample seams. Her awesome vocal apparatus displayed in "The Voice in My Heart" could not only blow the whole cast of Dreamgirls away but teach them some musical technique as well. Finally as Goldie Gates Maureen Brennan displays a lovely voice, marvelous comic timing, and a delightful ingenue quality."
The Goodspeed has had the good sense to spare no expense on this production, unlike some of its other recent efforts which reportedly looked chintzy and threadbare. Little Johnny Jones has a grandiose and extravagant look to it as David Toser's costumes perfectly match their setting whether it be yellow pastels in Hyde Park, red, white and blue for the finale, or a jazzy look for the "Give my Regards" number. Visually, Robert Randolph's imaginative set and lighting design wondrously allow hotels, horse races and steamships to appear and disappear before our eyes.
Little Johnny Jones is one of the greatest works of one of this country's greatest entertainers. After too long an absence from the public stage our own Yankee Doodle Dandy has returned in a technical and artistic success.