Friday, May 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"Seven Keys to Baldpate" shows that Cohan was more than a tap dancer

Special to The Seattle Times

Theater review

"Seven Keys to Baldpate" by George M. Cohan, runs Wednesdays-Saturdays through June 16, Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $25-$32 (206-292-ARTS; information, 206-781-9707 or

George M. Cohan (1878-1942) is best remembered as the legendary "Yankee Doodle Dandy" immortalized by James Cagney in the classic 1942 musical biopic, and in a recent 5th Avenue Theatre musical of the same title.

Cohan's achievements as a playwright tend to get lost in the shadow of his song-and-dance mastery. Taproot Theatre's production of "Seven Keys to Baldpate" serves as a welcome reminder that Cohan's stage work needn't be smothered in footlight nostalgia.

First produced in 1913, Cohan's mystery-farce hybrid (based on the debut novel of Earl Derr Biggers) was intended to be a one-night show, but it ran for a full season on Broadway and has endured for decades as a reliable crowd-pleaser. Seven film versions were made between 1916 and 1947 (with Cohan starring in a 1917 silent version, opened up with a back story and additional settings). Taproot's production takes advantage of the play's versatility with a 1955 time-frame and a burnished, film-noir set and lighting design that perfectly fits the material.

When novelist William Hallowell Magee (Bob Borwick) arrives at the empty, snowbound Baldpate Inn on a freezing winter night, he thinks he's got the inn's only key; the play's title is an amusing clue that he's wrong for a half-dozen reasons. In the midst of a bet to prove he can write a sensational crime mystery in 24 hours, he's about to get a real-life dose of his own pulp fiction, with blackmail and murder on the agenda. Or so it seems ...

The arrival of a "ghost" (actually a local hermit, played with buoyant vagrancy by Don Brady) is just the first of many distractions from Magee's intended goal. But as crime-plotting intruders continue to arrive, Magee's enthusiasm for mystery (and Borwick's skillful slapstick) get a thoroughly enjoyable workout.

Cohan's play is a tantalizing mystery that pokes fun at tantalizing mysteries, and director Karen Lund's impeccable casting serves it well. From the comely ingénue (Anne Kennedy) to the folksy innkeeper and corrupt railroad tycoon (both played to quick-changing perfection by Taproot stalwart Nolan Palmer), the schemers of Baldpate provide a constant flow of double-crossing comedy.

Despite a few cases of tripped-over dialogue and slightly mistimed gags that will surely improve as performances continue, Taproot's "Seven Keys" is a bona fide treat, unfolding on a two-story set (by Mark Lund) that lends itself to an abundance of clever business.

Jeff Shannon:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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