Renowned as one of the greatest actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, James Cagney (1899-1986) was a proverbial triple threat who could do it all. And so can Robert Creighton, the star and force behind Cagney The Musical, now playing upstairs at the Westside Theatre. With a book by Peter Colley and music and lyrics by Creighton and Christopher McGovern, who also did the arrangements, the bio-tribute traces the life and career of the actor, singer, and self-proclaimed ‘hoofer’ through his most memorable highlights and low points.
Beginning with his impoverished youth on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1910s, when he dreamed of becoming a boxer and fought for the rights of exploited workers, through his rise to stardom in Vaudeville, on Broadway, and on the Silver Screen, to his ongoing professional and political battles and his much-deserved recognition with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1978, Creighton’s high-octane and sympathetic performance, under the well-paced direction of Bill Castellino, delivers on all counts.
The show references all of the iconic scenes (including the infamous breakfast in The Public Enemy of 1931, in which he ad-libbed pushing a grapefruit half into the face of his co-star Mae Clarke) and familiar lines for which Cagney is known (such as “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” from the 1949 film-noir classic White Heat), and even the most oft-cited one that he really never did say (the misquoted “Mm, you dirty rat”), as he points out in his SAG acceptance speech. It also contains some lesser known facts about the actor’s softer side, though he would, to his dismay, become typecast in a series of 28 films as a tough guy, hoodlum, and psychopath: his early drag role as the comical Lola Fandango on the Vaudeville circuit; his loving devotion to his mother and his wife Willie, a fellow Vaudevillian; his donation to the defense fund of the Scottsboro Boys, about which he testified before the government’s Dies Committee, when he was falsely accused of being a Communist.
While Creighton’s obvious admiration for and resemblance to the short, red-haired Cagney don’t hurt, it’s his and his five multi-talented castmates’ masterful song-and-dance routines, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, that steal the show. Each supporting member of the company—Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Bruce Sabath, Josh Walden, and Ellen Zolezzi–plays multiple roles, and all dazzle with their strong voices, spot-on harmonies, perfectly synchronized moves, and engaging pizazz. They tap and sing original compositions by Creighton and McGovern (the opening number “Black and White” is the most affecting of them, sung by Sabath and the ensemble and reprised in Act II) and old standards by George M. Cohan, whom Cagney portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Their rendition of Cohan’s “Grand Old Flag” closes Act I with a bang; it is followed in the second act by a spectacular medley of that and his other patriotic tunes “Over There,” “Harrigan,” and “Mary’s A Grand Old Name.” The show ends with a red, white, and blue version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” that leaves the audience clapping their hands to the beat and for the terrific performance.
Among the other highlights of the production is Sabath’s powerful portrayal of Jack Warner, Cagney’s despotic boss at Warner Brothers, who epitomized the studio system of Old Hollywood (“They don’t call Warner Brothers the San Quentin of studios for nothing!”). Jeremy Benton amuses with his intentionally corny Vaudevillian routine and his impressively graceful a cappella tap-off as Bob Hope against his old friend Cagney, as does a clever scene of the cast typing in mime, while tapping with their shoes to make the sounds of the clicks.
The general mood of 20th-century nostalgia is enhanced by James Morgan’s Art Deco-inspired theater set, with posters from Cagney’s movies, a marquee with the changing locations and dates, and projections by Mark Pirolo. Martha Bromelmeier’s costumes evoke the eras and genres of entertainment in Cagney’s long career, and Michael Gilliam’s lighting design recreates the strong chiaroscuro effects of the vintage black-and-white movies in which he appeared. It all adds up to a rousing homage to one of America’s most beloved rags-to-riches show-biz legends.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.