By Stanford Friedman
Cagney is the poor man’s Hamilton, another rapid-fire musical about a struggling New Yorker who grows up to become a Yankee Doodle Dandy, while gaining fame for the way he handles a gun. The show’s star, Robert Creighton, is also one of its lyricists and, moving to midtown after a 2015 run at the York Theater Company, the production even coincidentally shares the same leitmotif as Hamilton, with the up-and coming hoofer continually being told to “give it a shot.” But if Jimmy’s place in Americana does not have the same gravitas as Alexander’s, and the book, score and lyrics come nowhere close to the inventive genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, well, there is definitely something to be said for a night of solid tap dancing and fast paced quasi-biographical musical comedy. As any gangster will tell you, a moving target is hard to attack. Knowing this, director Bill Castellino keeps things flowing so quickly that it’s impossible not to get drawn into the fun.
Emphasizing breadth over depth, Cagney’s story unfolds in a series of short flashbacks. We follow him from his tough early days working the mean streets while trying to please his Ma (Danette Holden), to his early stage career where he does a number in drag, literally getting to shake his maracas, and meeting his life-long love, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi). Then, it’s off to Hollywood, where he makes it big while fighting for good roles, fighting for unionization and fighting off accusations of communism from the Dies Commission. Ultimately though, we see Jimmy ain’t such a brute. In his closing ballad, “Tough Guy” he laments, “When the flick is finally over, and the audience files out, who’s the one that’s left alone, with little left but doubt?” Creighton handles is all with aplomb. Looking, sounding and dancing the part without ever stepping into caricature, he’s a dynamo in a star spangled vest.
If Hamilton had Aaron Burr as a frenemy, then Cagney had film impresario Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath). Warner “shot” Cagney unendingly in the 1930’s, making him famous while paying him poorly, driving him away, then ultimately bringing him back for the classic flick White Heat (“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”). Sabath, complete with villainous moustache, oozes a smarmy charm and rules his roost with fine comic conviction. Ms. Holden, when not playing Jimmy’s Ma, dons glasses and poor posture to play Warner’s lovelorn secretary, Jane. Juggling a series of high-speed costume changes, she charms in both roles. Zolezzi is also winning as Willie, with a clear, clean singing voice that defies the acoustically challenged Westside Theatre. Less effective is Jeremy Benton as Bob Hope, performing sans any semblance of the man.
In the spirit of old-timey musicals, the best number of the night has nothing to do with advancing the story or deepening the characters. “USO Medley” is simply an Act II show stopper where the company gets to sing and dance up a storm. Josh Walden steals it with a full throttle rendition of George M. Cohan’s “Harrigan.” Earlier, there’s also a delightful duet (“Falling in Love”) with Creighton and Zolezzi trying hard to pronounce their love for each other. But, two identically staged numbers that seek to quickly cover Cagney’s filmography fall flat, with the chorus seated and pretending to be screenwriters typing away. And finally, call me a sourpuss, but if you’re going to stage the classic grapefruit in the face scene from Public Enemy, you need to do it with more conviction, and further downstage, than what we are witness to here.
Cagney – Book by Peter Colley, Music & lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern. Directed by Bill Castellino.
WITH: Robert Creighton (James Cagney), Jeremy Benton (Bob Hope), Danette Holden (Ma/Jane), Bruce Sabath (Jack Warner), Josh Walden (Bill Cagney), and Ellen Zolezzi (Willie).
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse, music direction by Matt Peri, scenic design by James Morgan, costume design by Martha Bromelmeier, lighting design by Michael Gilliam, sound design by Janie Bullard and projections design by Mark Pirolo; production stage manager, Larry Smiglewski. The Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd St. 212-239-6200, http://www.cagneythemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.