If you were looking to make a biomusical, you could find a far worse subject than James Cagney, who transformed himself from a scrappy Irish construction worker into one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, known for his inimitable portrayals of killers and tough guys and earning an Oscar for playing song-and-dance man George M. Cohan. And if you were looking for someone to play Cagney, you simply could not do better than Robert Creighton, the Broadway veteran giving a star-making performance in the title role of the York Theatre Company’s “Cagney.”
Creighton’s participation in the piece is far from accidental, having developed the show over a number of years with book writer Peter Colley (who provides a fairly paint-by-numbers-script), and authoring five of the score’s songs, including the charming “Falling in Love” and the poignant “How Will Be I Remembered.” And while Creighton’s natural resemblance to Cagney is unmistakable, it is his multi-layered performance and his extraordinary tap-dancing skills, showcased again and again in Tony Award nominee Joshua Bergasse’s crowd-pleasing choreography, that help raise this show to a higher level.
The set-up, reminiscent of Broadway’s “Chaplin,” flashes through time, starting with Cagney’s appearance at the 1978 SAG Awards and spanning his career on the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and his work in Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1950s. Some of his biggest roles, including those in “Public Enemy” and “White Heat,” are cleverly re-created on stage by director Bill Castellino. And much of the 2 ½-hour show focuses on his love-hate relationship with egotistical studio head Jack Warner (brilliantly embodied by Bruce Sabath, who practically twirls his moustache). Besides his battles with Warner, Colley’s script also touches on, albeit more lightly, Cagney’s relationship with loving wife Willie (an appealing Ellen Zolezzi), good pal Bob Hope (a charming Jeremy Benton), his devoted mother (Danette Holden, impressive in a variety of roles) and brother Bill (Josh Walden, who stops the show during a USO-section devoted to the music of Cohan while performing “Harrigan”). Not too much is made of Cagney’s appearance in front of the Dies Commission, who suspected him of being a Communist, and some of his later films, notably “Love Me or Leave Me” go unmentioned.
In addition to the songs by Creighton and Cohan, the tuneful score contains several numbers by the talented Christopher McGovern, including the show’s hummable opener “Black and White,” the soliloquy-like “Mean,” and the touching “Some Other Guy,” all of which get at least one reprise. Sabath also makes a meal out of McGovern’s songs for Warner, including “Warner at Work” and “A Work of Genius.”
As usual, the York’s production is fairly simple, although a four-piece on-stage band, Mark Pirolo’s projection design, and Amy Clark’s spot-on costumes do up the ante from some of the company’s more bare-bones staging. Still, all “Cagney” really needs to entertain is Robert Creighton and a pair of tap shoes.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Robert Creighton, Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Bruce Sabath, Josh Walden, Ellen Zolezzi
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New York, NY 10036