While "Little Johnny Jones," which came to the Alvin last evening, is a prevailingly bland entertainment, there's nothing particularly wrong with it. It's neat as a pin, for one thing, and it functions like a pretty mechanical toy. The question, though, is what's it doing here?
It's an adaptation of the 1904 musical that, after a shaky start, established George M. Cohan, who also wrote the whole thing, as a Broadway star. At the same time, it established him as an enthusiastic flag-waver, both literally and, with the song "Yankee Doodle Boy," figuratively in the broadest sense of the word.
The new production, which stars TV's Donny Osmond, doesn't ignore Cohan's patriotic fervor. Just before the overture, the audience is asked to rise for the National Anthem while the flag is spotlighted in a box; and the show's final scene, costumes and all, is in brilliant red-white-and-blue.
Osmond plays an American jokey who rides in the English Derby, a situation Cohan borrowed from life. In Cohan's book, Johnny loses the race and is accused of having thrown it by the gambler who tried, but failed, to get him to do so. Eventually, with the aid of a comic detective, Johnny clears his name and, in Alfred Uhry's new version, is reunited with his beloved Goldie Gates (a San Franciscan, naturally) and goes on to win the big race at Saratoga.
Uhry's book, perhaps out of sympathy for Chinese-Americans, omits a big scene in San Francisco's Chinatown, where Johnny originally followed the villain to his lair and rescued the abducted Goldie. The excision makes the second half seem a little skimpy; but then, this show, which resembles an overlong World's Fair entertainment designed for the U.S. pavilion, would find its proper form as an hour-long family entertainment. Cable TV, take note.
The evening's most enlivening sections are provided by Dan Siretta's generous, not overly original, but unfailingly spirited dance numbers, especially the ones to "Yankee Doodle Boy," in which the star taps gracefully; to an interpolated "American Ragtime"; and to the show's other big hit song, "Give My Regards to Broadway," in which Osmond and the attractive ensemble use rough-palmed gloves to scrape out the rhythms of a sand dance. Osmond is least successful half-talking his way through the ruminative "Life's a Funny Proposition After All."
It might be mentioned here that the credited book director, Gerald Gutierrez, has disclaimed all responsibility for the current staging, though I don't see that it does him any discredit.
Osmond's creamy good looks and toothpaste grin are familiar to most of America, and so, I suppose, though I never caught him on the tube, is his engaging way with a song and dance number. But where as Cohan, if we can accept Cagney's famous film impersonation, was a feisty sort, Osmond is a colorless performer, however likable.
The rest contribute what spark there is to the occasion. Maureen Brennan is a suitably saucy Goldie, and employs her light soprano attractively in a pair of interpolated songs from both earlier and much-later Cohan shows. Jane Galloway is a lively Florabelle Fly, society editor, and delivers "Goodbye Flo" winningly. A portly Peter Van Norden is impressive as the villainous gambler, Anthony Anstey, engaged to Goldie's wealthy aunt and guardian, the giggly Mrs. Kenworth (Anna McNeely). And Tom Rolfing, playing Johnny's racetrack pal, and Jack Bittner, who takes on three roles, are helpful. Ernie Sabella gets a surprising amount of mileage out of the detective's shopworn gags.
The production itself is all that could be desired for such an undertaking. Robert Randolph's scenery isn't very substantial-looking, but the ship transformation scene at Southampton harbor (once at sea, the detective fires a rocket from the distant ship, signaling he's found evidence clearing Johnny, who has remained behind) is effectively handled. And David Toser's bright and handsome costumes and Thomas Skelton's lighting are enhancing. For once, too, the sound system isn't especially bothersome.
It's a nice try, but in a season notorious for its dearth of satisfactory new musicals, "Little Johnny Jones" is as stimulating as a package of sliced white bread.
They lied to me! Many people suggested to me that on the basis of his TV appearances little Donny Osmond was modestly untalented, but comparatively charming. Poppycock. Seeing him in the revival of George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones I would say that he was modestly talented (for example, he doesn't fall down or anything) but positively obnoxious.
He trips blithely through the entire show as if he is trying to sell something - unsuccessfully. Looking aggressively lost, like a failed candidate from a Dale Carnegie course, he tries to use charm as if it were a paper mask.
His singing is conventional, his acting a thing of the past, and as for his tap-dancing, he is like a toothpaste advertisement with terpsichorean delusions. He should take lessons from Honey Coles or someone - or, if he is, he should stop.
Osmond is merely the silliest thing in an old-fashioned show that really doesn't have much going for it, apart from a few songs, and one spectacular theatrical effect. (Wait for it.) It is curious how, today, for all its rah-rah jingoism, in spirit Little Johnny Jones is insidiously un-American.
In this supposed hymn to old-fashioned American virtues (the management thoughtfully even provides patrons with tiny American flags to wave should the spirit move them), Cohan in 1904 seemed to portray the entire American race as either fools, snobs, oafs, or villains. There is not a smart, sympathetic character in the entire play.
Of course Cohan was a misanthropic cynic. From recordings and pictures we know the kind of performer he was - and certainly he was not Mr. Milquetoast himself, little Donny Osmond. Miscasting could have gone no farther.
Cohan was a tough little guy with a voice of rasp - who knew the difference between 42nd Street and the Mormon Tabernacle. Cohan's perky, feisty flavor was surely caught both by James Cagney in the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy and by Joel Grey in the musical George M.
The musical's story of an American jockey being accused of throwing the English Derby, and later exonerated, is as thrill-packed as cornflakes - and although presumably the adaptor, Alfred Uhry, has brought it some measure of coherence, even he couldn't bestow on it style, credibility, or interest.
The director named on the program has written around to the critics disclaiming responsibility for the show, saying he left it somewhere on the road, but the producers refused to take his name off the production. The producers admit that he hasn't been around much since David Cassidy, who replaced the original Thomas Hulce, as Johnny, was himself replaced by Donny Osmond, but no one else has touched anything, except the fine-tuning by choreographer Dan Siretta. Perhaps not. Anyway, let the man be as nameless as he wishes.
The scenery by Robert Randolph exudes a certain rude confidence, but the costumes by David Toser look as though they were picked up as a lot at a theatrical costumers. They are nearly as bland as the show.
Most of the performances are merely flavorless, although Maureen Brennan as an annoying juvenile sinks somewhat deeper than mere mediocrity.
Two laurels can be awarded. The first to Peter Van Norden, who plays the villain like a man who has spent nights watching Laird Cregar on the Late Late Show, and Ernie Sabella, who is like a compacted Groucho Marx, without the mustache, cigar, leer, or gait, only the manners. Both shine, as Shakespeare put it, like bright lights in a naughty world.
Incidentally, the producers make a mistake in their program note on Cohan, saying: "George was born, quite logically, on the Fouth of July." Unfortunately he wasn't. As Ward Morehouse, Cohan's biographer, points out, he was actually born on the Third of July. But what is one mistake more among so many.
Before ''Little Johnny Jones'' begins, the audience is invited to rise and sing ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' to a flag that's been set up in the Alvin Theater's stage-right box. And so the flags keep unfurling right through the curtain call, at which point a gargantuan Old Glory drops from the heavens to fill the entire proscenium. Along the way, a delicate question is raised: With so many stars and stripes on view, is it treason to be bored stiff from beginning to end of ''Little Johnny Jones''? If it is, more than a few theatergoers may soon find themselves under house arrest.
This musical is a listless, not to mention listing, farrago that arrived on Broadway last night by way of Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House and a long tour of the hinterlands. Ostensibly a revival of the 1904 musical that brought early fame and fortune to George M. Cohan, it can't even be enjoyed as a bonafide historical artifact. Alfred Uhry, who doggedly ''adapted'' the original text to no particular purpose or avail, has reshuffled the libretto and replaced the majority of the show's original numbers with other Cohan songs. No doubt the 1904 ''Little Johnny Jones'' would be just as unworkable as this synthetic hodgepodge - one of the now-excised tunes was titled ''March of the Frisco Chinks'' - but at least it would be an authentic slice of ragtime-America jingoism.
The only honest verve at the Alvin comes from the star, Donny Osmond, who is known to television fans everywhere for his flashing white teeth, clean-cut graces and Hawaiian Punch commercials. The young Mr. Osmond is as yet a limited performer whose dancing is more like prancing and whose expressions range from a mild pout to a broad grin (with few gradations in between). But he is sincere and does know how to sing. One believes that he was born, at least spiritually, on the Fourth of July. His renditions of ''Yankee Doodle Boy'' and ''Give My Regards to Broadway'' are clear-voiced and fervent, even if they're unlikely to dent anyone's memories of Cohan, James Cagney or even the Joel Grey of ''George M.''
Mr. Osmond is also a give-his-all professional in a show in which professionalism is not exactly the holy grail. Without exception, the supporting cast is at the flimsiest summer-stock level - starting with Maureen Brennan, a charmless leading lady who squeals and yelps and slides into her notes on the best interpolated song, ''Oh, You Wonderful Boy.'' Miss Brennan plays Goldie Gates, a San Francisco copper heiress who chases Johnny Jones, ''the most sought-after jockey in the world,'' all the way to the British Derby and then back again to Saratoga. Heiresses crossed oceans by ship in Cohan's day, and, after sampling the speed of ''Little Johnny Jones,'' one understands just why someone later had to invent the jet.
Among Goldie's fellow travelers are her loud dowager aunt, a meddling society journalist and a villainous fortune-hunter - all played by overbearing, profusely guffawing performers who seem to be engaged in a winking competition. Presumably the director coaxed the cast's unrestrained antics, but one cannot say with authority who the director is. Gerald Gutierrez, who receives the credit, sent a letter to the press last week in which he stated that prior contractural commitments to other productions ended his active involvement with ''Little Johnny Jones'' some months ago.
Whoever's responsible, the show's staging gives it the aura of a wax museum, with sets (mainly drops), costumes and at times sepulchral lighting to match. The choreographer, Dan Siretta, tries to levitate the dead with prolific dance numbers in which ragged gymnastics substitute for inspiration. Unlike Gower Champion in ''42d Street'' or Donald Saddler in the last revival of ''No, No Nanette,'' Mr. Siretta doesn't reinvent yesteryear's tap routines and kicklines to make them seem freshly minted. He just heaps on cliches with a trowel.
Even so, the original author's ghost occasionally peeks through all the evening's ersatz, unstyled nostalgia. We hear him in his wisecracking put-downs of Old Europe, in the unalloyed brassiness of his better melodies, in his heartfelt lyrical paeans to the red, white and blue. In sharp contrast to his posthumous collaborators at the Alvin, Cohan didn't settle for wrapping himself in the flag. He had the real live Yankee Doodle spirit that's required to wave it.