Theater Review: ‘Cagney: The Musical’

Yankee Doodle Dandy dazzles New York
June 2, 2016 Updated: June 8, 2016

NEW YORK—If you have not had the opportunity to learn more about James Cagney, the multitalented actor/singer/dancer, go to the Westside Theatre and see Robert Creighton, an Outer Critics award winner for Best Actor in an Off Broadway Musical. This is your chance.

The short, stocky, and very determined Irish-born New Yorker is re-invented in “Cagney: The Musical” by Robert Creighton at the Westside Theatre. Fortunately, in addition to singing, dancing, and tapping a mean streak, Creighton bears a striking physical resemblance to Cagney.

Bruce Sabath is fabulous as Jack Warner, the Hollywood executive. (Carol Rosegg)
Bruce Sabath is fabulous as Jack Warner, the Hollywood executive. (Carol Rosegg)

Perhaps this fact led to his commitment and creation of this project. He teamed up with Christopher McGovern to write the additional music for the show and arrangements that added to the George M. Cohan standards.

The actors other than Creighton all have multiple roles to play, but their shining moments are due to the tap choreography by Outer Critics award winner Joshua Bergasse.

Cagney’s Story

As many actors then and now, Cagney had a somewhat checkered career. Coming from a terribly poor Irish family in Brooklyn, his career began dressed as a woman in a speakeasy, where he met his wife, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi). Shortly after began his troubled relationship with Jack “Make Me Happy” Warner, brilliantly performed by Bruce Sabath.

Cagney was a liberal idealist, and he fearlessly paid the price, even resulting in an investigation (and eventual clearance) by the Dies Committee, which preceded the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Robert Creighton plays Cagney in a musical about the life of the iconic performer. (Carol Rosegg)
Robert Creighton plays James Cagney in a musical about the life of the iconic performer. (Carol Rosegg)

His idealism also led to a parting of the ways at Warner Bros. Though he had become a star through his tough guy roles, he did not want to be pigeonholed that way.

His own company’s films were not exactly successful, so he renewed his association with Warner, who begrudgingly bailed out Cagney and his company.

Though nominated two other times, the only Oscar that Cagney won was for George M. Cohan‘s life story, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” As the epitome of Cagney’s career, it’s fitting that this number closes the show, with the most famous quote from that show: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”

If accessibility is an issue, the show is performed on the second floor up a steep flight of stairs with no elevator.

‘Cagney: The Musical’
Westside Theatre
407 W. 43rd St.
Tickets 212-239-6200, or CagneytheMusical.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Open Run

Nanci Callahan is the founder and managing director of the West Side Cultural Center. She has written for many publications, including New York magazine and Noticias del Mundo.

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