by David Lally · May 28, 2015
Danette Holden, Jeremy Benton, Robert Creighton, Ellen Zolezzi, Josh Walden | Carol Rosegg
Cagney, a new musical with book by Peter Colley, music and lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern, choreography by Joshua Bergasse, who recently scored a Tony nomination for Broadway’s On The Town, and directed by Bill Castellino, is what I would call a good old-fashioned musical, one you would probably see in Broadway’s heyday but sadly, would probably not get a shot at the big leagues today. Why? Because it’s not based on a marketing concept, it’s new and it’s original and its source material is an actor that sadly, seems to be largely forgotten today. Even Producing Artistic Director James Morgan had to ask the audience in his curtain speech, “Does everyone know who James Cagney is?”
But Cagney was one of the biggest stars ever to grace the movies. Cagney follows the legendary star and the screen’s greatest tough guy from his humble beginnings in New York City's Lower East Side through his rise as a vaudeville song-and-dance man, to his superstardom in Hollywood.
James Cagney could do it all – sing, dance, play the bad guy, the good guy, the patriot, the gangster. The musical is framed by the Screen Actor’s Guild awarding Cagney a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1978 where Cagney comes face to face with Jack Warner, his biggest ally and his biggest enemy at times, then flashes back to tell the rags-to-riches story of Cagney’s rise to fame.
Cagney shot to stardom playing these big gangster roles when he ended up replacing another actor as the lead in The Public Enemy. Warner knew how to turn ordinary men into stars and soon Cagney was the go-to guy for every gangster picture Warner made. He forever tried to live that down and stretch his wings but Warner was intent on giving the public what they wanted over and over and over again. But Cagney wanted more. Ironically, he won his only Oscar for playing song and dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The musical works beautifully and manages to hit all the major points of Cagney’s life without seeming forced. Though a few events are compressed for time, it’s a fairly straight-forward accounting of Cagney’s life.
All the numbers are great and credit must go to Mr. Creighton and McGovern for making all the numbers tuneful and exciting and able to forward the story along in a brisk and clever way. One of the standout numbers is when Jack Warner is trying to create tough guy vehicles for his star and consults with his writers in the writer’s room, called “Warner at Work”, a song that is mirrored later when Cagney breaks out on his own and tries to create roles that get him away from his tough guy image in “Cagney at Work”.
Of course this musical would be only half as exciting if it didn’t have Robert Creighton starring as Cagney. He is not only the right height, build and coloring to play the leading man, he’s got Cagney’s cadence and lyrical voice down pat. He’s almost a dead ringer for the real-life Cagney as one glance around the theater to the large movie posters of some of Cagney’s biggest roles attest to that fact. He is ably supported by five other very talented actor/singer/dancers playing a variety of roles ranging from the above-mentioned Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath) to Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton), to Jimmy’s mother (Danette Holden) and his brother (Josh Walden) and wife, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi). There were times when I could have sworn there were more people on stage with all the entrances and exits of the different people in Cagney’s life.
The simple set by James Morgan works great and the projections by Mark Pirolo really sell the show. And it’s great to see the band in the back of the stage, always reminding us that this is show business after all.
I have to conclude by saying that I’ve seen several productions at The York Theatre and they have managed to keep doing an interesting mix of new and old musical works, stuff that is sorely missing on the Broadway boards these days. It’s nice to know there’s a place that fosters interesting work like Cagney. And if you’re like me, you’ll run home and stream a couple of good old James Cagney movies to make it a complete day.