Billed as “a new musical about Hollywood’s tough guy in tap shoes,” Cagney, which opened last night at the York Theatre Company, is another refreshing show from a company that specializes in producing uplifting new musicals.
Broadway veteran Robert Creighton is the powerhouse of talent behind the show, making its New York premiere through June 21. A triple threat — actor, singer and dancer — he also wrote the music and lyrics for several of the songs. Christopher McGovern wrote the rest.
Short and stocky, Creighton would not normally be thought of as a leading man, unless that leading man happens to be the similarly built James Cagney, in which case Creighton seemed almost destine for the role.
“When I was a student at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, an acting teacher, Jack Melanos, told me I reminded him of Jimmy Cagney. Thank you, Jack,” he writes in a program message. “At the time, my only knowledge of Cagney’s film work was having seen ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ as a kid. I went and rented several Cagney films and thus began the obsession.”
Unlike Creighton, I have never seen any of his films and knew nothing about his life. Thanks to this musical, with its book by playwright Peter Colley and direction by Bill Castellino, I now know a good deal about Cagney’s biography, although his character is portrayed too one-sidedly sweet and wholesome to be the entire story.
After an opening number about the ups and downs of Hollywood, “Black and White,” the story is framed by Cagney’s appearance in 1978 at the Screen Actors Guild awards to receive one for Lifetime Achievement. He’s talking with Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath), the head of Warner Brothers Studios who gave Cagney his first movie role and wants to take credit for finding “a tough guy to give the Depression-era public what it wanted.”
But Cagney, who had broken with and rejoined the studio several times, has an answer for his former boss. “You didn’t create that. The streets of New York did.”
In between that frame we see Cagney, born of Irish ancestry on the Lower East Side, stumble into show business in 1922 after losing his job as a laborer. Checking out the Help Wanteds with his brother, Bill (Josh Walden), he finds one for a dancer at Keith’s Musical Theatre and goes to check it out. Proving to be surprisingly light on his feet, he dances his way into the chorus, where he is dressed as a woman, and also performs standup comedy, thus beginning his life in vaudeville.
In a nutshell, the stage and Hollywood follow, along with a happy marriage to Willie (Ellen Zolezzi), his first dancing partner at Keith’s. He is called before a House of Representatives committee to answer charges that he is a Communist sympathizer because he contributes to labor organizations and sent money for the Scottsboro Boys defense. This contributes to one of his splits from Warner Brothers, but also after portraying “dumb women-slapping Micks” in 28 movies, he wants to play different roles, so he forms his own production company.
“I long to bring some light, to make art that feeds the soul,” he says. “I want to make movies that inspire people.” He expresses this longing in “How Will I Be Remembered?”
“How will I be remembered when they roll my final reel — a gangster, a villain a bum?”
Unfortunately Cagney Productions is a failure, but the actor does achieve success apart from the bad guy roles, namely for his Oscar-winning portrayal of George M. Cohan in the musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” In addition to Creighton’s and McGovern’s original songs, Cagney also includes three Cohan songs, “Grand Old Flag,” "Over There" and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, sung rousingly by the company, which also includes Jeremy Benton as Bob Hope (and others) and Danette Holden as Ma Cagney (and others).
Mark Pirolo’s projections enhance James Morgan’s minimalist sets. Amy Clark creates nice period costumes and Brian Nason provides the lighting. All of this is understated, which is just fine because the show needs little more than a stage and its talented cast.
All of the actors are good tappers, but Benton really shines in his solo to “Harrigan,” played by the onstage band, and he and Creighton bring down the house together dancing to “Crazy ‘Bout You.” Joshua Bergasse does a great job choreographing on that tiny stage. (He is currently represented on Broadway as choreographer for On the Town, for which he received a Tony nomination).
All sing well, too, especially Zolezzi. And the acting is good, even if the characters are a bit one-dimensional. The scenes with Cagney are the best. The two-hours, 15-minutes running time could be trimmed by cutting some of the others, which slow the story. Not the tapping, though. Leave in all of that. It’s a joy!
(Photo by Carol Rosegg: Danette Holden, Jeremy Benton, Robert Creighton, Ellen Zolezzi and Josh Walden.)