Theater Review: ‘Cagney’

Spirited bio-musical
June 10, 2015 Updated: June 17, 2015
FONT BFONT SText size

NEW YORK—This musical about the life of movie superstar James Cagney was a labor of love for performer Robert Creighton. He made a study of Cagney for years and came up with this credible version of the star’s life.

Furthermore, Creighton wrote some of the songs—the others are by Christopher McGovern and no less a personage than George M. Cohan.

James Cagney tries to escape his tough guy image, which he solidified in such films as ‘White Heat’ and ‘The Public Enemy.’
Cagney tries to escape his tough guy image, which he solidified in such films as “White Heat” and “The Public Enemy.” But before he got to that point he carved his way from his birth on the Lower East Side of New York to become an ordinary construction worker.

He later makes it into vaudeville where he met the love of his life, fellow performer Frances Willard Vernon. Called Willie in the show, she is well-played by Ellen Zolezzi and is a wonderful tap-dancer.

After giving a terrific performance in a Broadway show, Cagney is noticed and lured to Hollywood by powerful movie producer Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath) of Warner Bros.

Robert Creighton plays the legendary James Cagney in the New York premiere of the new musical,
Robert Creighton plays the legendary James Cagney in the New York premiere of the new musical “Cagney.” (Carol Rosegg)

Warner puts Cagney into a series of movies that make Cagney a major star—and lots of money for Warner Bros. Since the tough guy image is selling well to the public, Jack Warner is loath to let his star escape it.

Cagney wants to play roles that are ennobling and make films that convey a profound message. Unfortunately, when Cagney goes out on his own as a producer, he is a resounding failure. But Cagney ultimately hits the mark with his Oscar-winning performance in the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

It’s a joy when the “Cagney” dancing cast of only five taps their way into one’s heart with song/tap renditions of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Creighton handily anchors the show with his performance and mannerisms, so close to the “real McCoy” of James Cagney. He bears a reasonable resemblance to the late star, and when he breaks into a tap dance (terrific choreography by Joshua Bergasse), you can’t help but be won over.

(L–R) Jeremy Benton, Ellen Zolezzi, and Josh Walden in the New York premiere of the new musical,
(L–R) Jeremy Benton, Ellen Zolezzi, and Josh Walden in the New York premiere of the new musical, “Cagney,” now in performance through June 21 at The York Theatre Company. (Carol Rosegg)

Even if you’re not already a fan of this rhythmic form of dance, this show should bring you into the fold.

Much of the plotline is taken up with the at-odds relationship of Cagney and Warner, with actor Sabath’s portrayal of a ruthless producer supplying a fine foil for Creighton.

Another section of the script shows Cagney falsely accused of having communist ties by the Dies Committee, which preceded the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Director Bill Castellino ties all the elements together—book is by Peter Colley, set by York Theatre Company artistic director James Morgan, and projections by Mark Pirolo.

Others in the cast are Danette Holden, Jeremy Benton, and Josh Walden, with Walden performing a particularly fine solo.

To my mind, the show has possibilities for expansion in terms of the complexity of the writing. And wouldn’t it be exciting to see a really large cast of dancers tapping their way across a larger stage? What heavenly rhythms to see and sense!

Bruce Sabath as film producer Jack Warner with Danette Holden. (Carol Rosegg)
Bruce Sabath as film producer Jack Warner with Danette Holden. (Carol Rosegg)

According to its website, The York Theatre Company is the only theater company in New York City, and one of the few in the world, dedicated to developing and fully producing new musicals and preserving neglected, notable shows from the past.

The York can readily view this production of “Cagney” as another feather in its producing cap.

‘Cagney’
The York Theatre Company
York Theatre at Saint Peter’s
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: 212-935-5820 or YorkTheatre.org
Closes: June 21

Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at DiaBarth@juno.com