By: Paulanne Simmons
When most of us remember James Cagney, we think of his iconic roles in gangster movies like "Public Enemy," "Taxi," "Angels with Dirty Faces" and "White Heat." But when Cagney got his start in the entertainment business, it was as a hoofer in vaudeville, singing, dancing and cracking jokes. And it wasn’t until he went to work for Warner Brothers that his tough guy persona evolved. With this in mind, Robert Creighton called the show he has been working on for at least six years Cagney: A New Musical about Hollywood’s Tough Guy in Tap Shoes.
After making its debut at Florida Stage in 2009, Cagney was produced again in Florida and in Creighton’s native Canada. At last, Creighton has managed to get this work, the product of great love and considerable ambition, to the Big Apple, where it has been embraced by The York Theatre Company, a venue that is both the cauldron for developing new musicals and a platform for celebrating the old. Cagney has a little of both.
The musical is directed by Bill Castellino, with Creighton playing Cagney, alongside an ensemble cast portraying the important people in his life: his mother (Danette Holden), his wife, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi), Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath). Although the book was written by Peter Colley, Creighton penned the lyrics and composed the music, with the help of Christopher McGovern.
Beginning with Cagney’s impoverished youth on the Lower East Side, the musical follows his rise to fame. We see Cagney falling in love ("Crazy About You," "Falling in Love"), making films with Jack Warner ("A Work of Genius" " Warner at Work") and trying to reconcile his career with his personal goals ("How Will I Be Remembered?"). There’s even a detour into his troubles with the government over supposed leftist leanings ("The Dies Commission").
Although both the script and score are serviceable, and Sabath excels as the mercenary, manipulative Warner, it’s in the scenes where Creighton becomes Cagney portraying George M. Cohan (as Cagney did in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy) that the show really takes off ("Grand Old Flag," ""USO Medley," "Yankee Doodle Dandy"). Creighton, like Cagney and Cohan, is an excellent singer and dancer, and he has surrounded himself with an energetic and able ensemble.
This is no small feat, But the show is about Cagney, not Cohan, and the failure to make the story of Cagney’s life and work compelling in words and musical is the major problem with this otherwise entertaining show. Cagney may continue making its way around regional theater, but it is probably not Broadway bound.
Cagney. through June 21 at The York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church, East 54th St., just east of Lexington Ave., 212-935-5820.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
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