by Samuel L. Leiter
This is an edited/updated version of my review of the York Theatre Company’s New York premiere of Cagney, posted on The Broadway Blog on June 2, 2015. The show, a biomusical about movie star James Cagney, now being given a commercial run at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre, is essentially unchanged; the same relatively minor weaknesses are present, but Cagney remains entirely pleasurable; in fact, I liked it even better the second time around.
James Morgan’s scenery has been expanded and a new costume designer, Martha Bromelmeier, and lighting designer, Michael Gilliam, are on board but the show, while benefitting from a larger stage, doesn’t look that much different from its earlier version. The same superb acting-singing-dancing cast is back, and Robert Creighton, the sparkplug star in the title role, gives one of the most noteworthy performances on any current New York stage.
It’s a bit early to be celebrating the Fourth of July but there’s a firecracker of an all-American musical named Cagney exploding nightly at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre in honor of its eponymous hero. James Cagney was famous not only for his many roles as a redheaded, bantam-sized, tough guy, but for his too infrequently filmed talents as a song and dance man, most notably in the still captivating Yankee Doodle Dandy (1941). In it he played an even greater song and dance man (and playwright, composer, lyricist, director, and producer), George M. Cohan, whose music makes up at least 25 percent of the show. Much of this music—“Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Mary,” “Harrigan,” “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—was heard in the 1968 Broadway musical, George M!.
Cagney, originally created in 2009, is the brainchild of another song and dance man, Robert Creighton, who not only plays the New York-born and raised star, but also co-wrote the original music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern (the book is by Peter Colley). In a program note for last year’s York Theatre production (not included in the Westside’s program), Creighton said his obsession with Cagney started after an acting teacher noted his resemblance to him. And, indeed, he looks just enough like the 5’ 5” star to carry off the impersonation, although he’s a bit stockier—more like the middle-aged Cagney—than the lithe actor who rose to fame playing gangsters in 1930s Warner Brothers flicks.
Creighton’s impression of Cagney’s singular, rapid-fire speaking style is inconsistent, but when he’s saying or singing material lifted directly from Cagney’s films, he nails it, especially when he reprises “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in that memorably breathy, Cagneyesque way. To top it all off, this guy can tap dance, even replicating, with modest success, Cagney’s indelible stiff-legged hoofing. (All that’s missing is his dancing up the proscenium walls.) So, while you can niggle about the inevitable shortfalls of watching an actor portray someone so distinctively familiar, you have to hand it to Creighton for overcoming the handicaps and giving a tour de force performance.
Cagney, which breaks no new ground in the biomusical genre, is performed in front of James Morgan’s set, enlarged and improved from the York version to suggest the proscenium of an old-time movie theatre, with a set of panels on which projection designer Mark Pirolo displays movie posters and various locale-setting images; the five-member orchestra is placed upstage of the panels. The actor’s life story is framed by a 1978 event in which ruthless, self-satisfied Warner Brothers head Jack Warner (perfectly depicted by Bruce Sabath), Cagney’s longtime boss and nemesis, is to present Cagney with a SAG Lifetime Achievement Award.
What’s framed is an extended flashback offering a journey through Cagney’s life, from teenage brawler to vaudeville performer, Broadway actor, and Hollywood star in classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and White Heat. His grapefruit-in-your-face scene with Mae Clark in Public Enemy (1931), his contract battles with Warner, the creation of his own company, and the suspicions of the Dies Committee re: his liberal politics are among the subjects covered.
Many characters appear in Cagney, but the main ones are Warner and his adoring secretary, Jane (Danette Holden); Ma Cagney (Holden); comic Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton); Cagney’s wife, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi); and his brother, Bill (Josh Walden). Each actor in the versatile ensemble plays multiple roles (costume designer Martha Bromelmeier has been very busy); Holden, Walden, Zolezzi, and Benton are also tap dance whizzes.
Straightforward dialogue scenes (the weakest links) mingle with musicalized ones and numerous factual liberties are taken. The show includes so many anachronisms and inaccuracies, in fact, that purists will be reaching for their rods. For example, Cagney’s first vaudeville job may have been in drag, but it was as one of a bunch of sailors dressed as a female chorus in an act called Every Sailor, not as someone doing a solo number as a maracas-wielding Spanish dancer at Keith’s 81st Street Theatre (which actually was Keith’s 86th Street Theatre). And, despite what the show says, it wasn’t there that Cagney met his future wife. My advice: shut one eye at the distortions and just enjoy the show as a semi-fictionalized account of Cagney’s life; the movies do it all the time. If you want a good biography, read John McCabe’s Cagney.
Most of the score, which has 18 original numbers, suffers in comparison to Cohan’s standards, but several numbers are more than serviceable, including the opening paean by the company to classic Hollywood, “Black and White.” Other standouts are “A Work of Genius,” “Warner at Work,” and the cleverly done “Cagney at Work,” in which the writers work out storylines as they sit on chairs, tapping the typing sounds with their feet.
Cagney may be imperfect, but this low-concept, high-energy show has so much going for it under the direction of Bill Castellino, especially its abundance of Hollywood nostalgia, a dynamic lead performance, and awesome tap dancing, outstandingly choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (Gigi, On the Town), that you’ll rise with the tide for the standing ovation when it’s over.
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Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).