A CurtainUp Review
A new musical about Hollywood's tough guy in tap shoes
By Elyse Sommer
The Original Cagney Review
For Robert Creighton, Cagney is a well-deserved star turn. Though he's previously done impressive work on and off-Broadway ( The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Little Me and Paint Your Wagon at Encores! ), it's always been in supporting roles. Though not a Cagney doppleganger, it's understandable why the red-haired young Creighton reminded his acting teacher at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts of Jimmy Cagney. Like the man he's now portraying, Creighton proves himself to be a triple threat: an actor with a knack for portraying the character he's playing, a zestful singer, and a dynamite dancer.
Peter Colley's book for the show spans more than half a century and comes with a large cast of characters. Though the York Theater's modest stage and budget can't accommodate a Broadway-sized musical cast, that's no problem here. Under Bill Castellino's direction Cagney works with just five actors besides Creighton. Each cast member brings one key character to vivid life and deftly takes on a host of others as needed. The seemingly effortless role doubling owes much to Amy Clark's many and quite splendid costumes, as well as Leah Loukas's character defining wigs. While Creighton plays only the titular character, he's also co-composer and lyricist.
The framework for the story is the 1974 ceremony at which Cagney received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work. I'm not sure whether Jack Warner actually was the presenter, but it effectively works as a reunion for the two men who had a long and fractious relationship at the Warner movie studios — as well as a set-up to flash back through Cagney's trajectory from the streets of New York to the super stardom.
As Creighton easily evokes images of Cagney, so Bruce Sabath is on the mark as the tough but astute Hollywood mogul. Sabath, besides nailing Warner's persona, also shines in some of his other roles.
Ellen Zolezzi is delightful as Willie, the vaudeville partner who became Cagney's wife; Danette Holden shines as his mother. Between them they segue into the likes of Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Shirley Temple and Warner's harried secretary. Though Cagney had several brothers and a much younger sister, the show's book does a bit of "birth control" by focusing on Bill (the amiable Josh Walden), the brother to whom he was closest.
Jeremy Benton is a terrific hoofer and the Cagney/Hope tap duet from The Seven Little Foys is a second-act show stopper. However, Bob Hope, unlike the other ensemble players' primary characters, was as famous as Cagney but there's absolutely nothing about Benton's looks or his character to link him to Hope.
Actually, Hope and Cagney being friends isn't all that unlikely. They had a lot more in common than this no-warts bio-show lets on. Both were Screen Actors Guild (SAG) presidents and, like other writers and actors of that era, eventually became politically conservative. Thus Cagney's declaration in his first scene that he left his retirement home for the award because he's still an "old union man" is a bit disingenuous. Though Jack Warner was always a fierce Republican, by 1974 he and Cagney were no longer oceans apart politically. (Cagney started voting for Republicans and supporting Republican causes in 1948).
Okay, so this isn't a warts and all, factually complete and accurate bio-musical as much as a homage to the legendary "tough guy in tap shoes"— but it's an enjoyable song and dance show nevertheless. All the highlights of Cagney's colorful career are there, including the famous Public Enemy scene in which he went off script to smash a grapefruit in his co-star's face. Joshua Bergasse's choreography keeps not only the tough guy's tap shoes but everyone's feet in eye-pleasing motion.
It takes courage to present a new musical score alongside tried and true winners. However, since Cagney's fame as a song ad dance man is largely tied to his Oscar winning portrayal of George M. Cohan, a show about Cagney without some of Cohan's hits would be as incomplete as a plant without blossoms. Sure enough, count on being treated "Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Creighton and Christopher McGovern's tunes aren't nearly as catchy or likely to be as everlasting. That said, their work features some carefully thought out harmonies as well as a lovely ballad, "Falling in Love."
Most important, the score serves the book's forward movement and director Castellino's and Bergasse's nifty staging ideas. "Warner at Work" is one of the cleverest numbers. It has Warner directing the ensemble in the guise of screenwriters, typing and tapping out the barrage of Cagney films turned out like cars on an assembly line. This device of choreographed script writing is repeated in the second act when Cagney and his brother set up their own film company.
Don't worry about getting lost in all these events and movies. James Morgan, the York's charming and gifted artistic director, and projectionist Mark Pirolo have created a handsome and clarifying environment. Several sliding panels on which posters and other images also hide and occasionally reveal Matt Perri's excellent 5-piece band. At one point, the panels also reveal the cast in a stunning bit of shadow play.
The show ends as it begins — back at the awards event, with Warner presenting and Cagney accepting the Life Time Achievement award, followed by a rip-roaring production number for the hard-working ensemble. The York Theater Company with its focus on new musicals has developed a loyal following over the years. If you've missed shows like Jolson & Company, Souvenier andThrill Me, buying a ticket for Cagney is your chance to discover one of New York's theatrical jewels.
Cagney played at the York Theater with the same cast and creative team, the only exceptions being the following credits: . (The only Costumes, Amy Clark, lighting, Brian Nason, wigs, Leah J. Loukas). The York production ran from 5/19/15 to 6/20/15 and I reviewed it at a press preview on 5/26/16.
Below is the original song list.
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