by Tulis McCall
The reason you want to see Cagney, before it closes in May, comes in a compact package busting with a sparkle that nearly knocks you over. Fortunately you are sitting down when Robert Creighton arrives on the stage as James Cagney. The unfortunate part is that you will want to be leaping out of your seat before the performance concludes, because Creighton is such a smooth dancer that he makes it look easy. This makes you think you could probably do it just as well. This probably not true.
Biographies onstage are a dodgy bit of business. And Cagney is no exception. The center of the story is the relationship between Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath) and Cagney. Contentious would be the word. This is the hook on which we cast our net. The text does not give it full throttle, which would be a stronger position, but there is enough of it there to guide the journey.
Cagney started out in vaudeville because he needed the money. Originally an extra in the movies, he left that because he was more or less fired on account of he had a big mouth and didn’t like it when the production company stiffed the performers. (I feel a union coming on…). A chance listing in the paper sent him to West 81st Street to Keith’s Music Theatre where his first job was playing a woman. It was here he met his future wife Willie (Ellen Zolezzi ), to whom he was married for over 60 years.
One important friendship that shows up out of nowhere is Cagney’s with Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton). It was Hope who provided Cagney’s next incarnation with the news of an audition for part for which Cagney was perfect on account of his red hair. No fooling. A new play by Maxwell Anderson, Outside Looking In. Ba-da-Bing, the kid gets the part. Not only that, he gets rave reviews that bring him to the attention of Jack Warner. The rest, as we say, is history except for the part where Hollywood had to take a chance on a guy who was on the short side and built like a fire hydrant. Could this kid play romantic leads as well as tough guys? Cagney grabbed permission to adlib should the occasion arise – remember that grapefruit scene????
Soon he was assigned gangster roles because if there is one thing Hollywood is good at it is redundancy. Here is where the story starts to fall into shape. Cagney was beginning to feel as though he was in a penitentiary. Work was not fun or challenging. It was a grind, and it was all about bad guys. And did I mention the real bullets? Cagney took a stand in a town where the movie business owned everything and everyone. He struck out on his own and, well, he struck out. When he returned to the studios to eat crow, he cooked it up his own way.
All of this would be just so much Hollywood legend – and a difficult one to tell at that because Cagney had no skeletons in his closet – without the dancing. I cannot tell you exactly how they manage this, but it feels like there is a tap number in every scene. Even the screen writers dance. We are treated to a taste of the tap number with Hope and Cagney in The Seven Little Foys. The numbers that are off the charts are the iconic numbers by George M. Cohan: Grand Old Flag, Over There, Give My Regards to Broadway and Yankee Doodle Dandy. What happens in these numbers is that Creighton turns on the magic machine, and we enter into a different time. We experience the gift that theatre is at its core. Pretty much all of us have seen a clip or two of Cagney dancing, but when you follow Robert Creighton down the rabbit hole you end up in a wonderland that you can feel down to your toes.
And THAT my friends, is showbiz magic. You only have a few weeks to catch Cagney before it closes on May 28.
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.