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by Samuel L. Leiter
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 York Theatre Company 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, “A New Musical about Hollywood’s Tough Guy in Tap Shoes,” originally created in 2009, is receiving its New York premiere after earlier showings in Florida and Ontario. It’s 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, Creighton says 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 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. 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 simple set of movable panels on which projection designer Mark Pirolo displays movie posters; 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 areas covered, but at nearly two and a half hours, further compression would be a good idea.
Many characters appear, 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 Amy Clark 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. Cagney’s first vaudeville job may have been in drag, but it was as one of a bunch of sailors dressed as women, not as someone dressed anachronistically in a Carmen Miranda fruit cocktail headdress. (See Mickey Rooney’s version of similar material in Babes on Broadway for how to make such corn work.)
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,” “A Work of Genius,” sung by Warner and Jane, and both “Warner at Work” and “Cagney at Work,” in which the men work out storylines with their writers who, while sitting, tap the typing sounds with their feet.
Regardless, this low-concept, high-energy show has so much else going for it under the direction of Bill Castellino, especially its abundance of 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.
York Theatre Company
The Theater at Saint Peters
619 Lexington Avenue, NYC
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).