Friday, October 14, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—“Cagney” the Musical

Music & lyrics by Robert Creighton & Christopher McGovern; book by Peter Colley
Directed by Bill Castellino
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

The cast of Cagney (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Turning James Cagney’s career into a musical is a no-brainer, as creator/songwriter/actor Robert Creighton shows in Cagney, an off-Broadway hit going strong since it opened this past spring. Cagney’s was the ultimate rags-to-riches story, tailor-made for a Hollywood movie (or stage show): a poor Irish immigrant born in 1891 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he worked his way from vaudeville to stage to screen, morphing from song-and-dance man to tough guy and back again, even winning an Oscar as George M. Cohan in the patriotic 1942 classic Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Playing the physically taxing title role, Creighton has written hummable, not entirely forgettable songs that are woven into the show (including the rousing opener “Black and White,” which cleverly returns in different form to open Act II), which starts with Cagney’s late-‘70s lifetime achievement award by the Screen Actors Guild before jumping back to his early days, slaving away at trashy jobs for peanuts before getting his first show biz work—in a dive, naturally—where he met future (and only) wife Willie.

Creighton, director Bill Castellino and choreographer Joshua Bergasse (whose spiffy dance numbers are easily Cagney’s highlights) have smartly brought in familiar Cohan songs “Over There, “Grand Old Flag” and grand finale “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to put smiles on faces and cheer the hearts of the show’s typical audience members, who undoubtedly remember the originals. Creighton is short of stature like Cagney, but his acting is more a Rich Little impression than a true characterization; happily, that’s all moot when he and his supporting cast turn on the tap-dancing spigots: it’s where by-the-numbers storytelling stops and musical euphoria begins.

If Creighton and his talented cohorts—Ellen Zolezzi as Willie and Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner, Cagney’s boss-turned-Hollywood-nemesis, make the best impressions—can’t hope to equal Cagney’s immortal celluloid moments, they provide a pretty good outline. And the audience’s own nostalgia fills in the blanks.

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