Let me begin with a warning – I saw this show in a preview, and so there might have been changes, additions, subtractions before the show opened. I don’t think there is much room for a change in what is a very tightly and cleanly performed production, but one never knows.
As the name suggests, this is a musical about Irish-American movie legend James Cagney. Five other actors take on a number of different roles, while Robert Creighton, who also wrote much of the music and lyrics, stars as Cagney. The show is brisk, the music light and melodic, the tap dancing is impressive and the use of a small space is creative and entertaining. The cast has a wealth of Broadway, regional and tour experience, and it shows. Although the theatre is small (the production is staged at the York Theatre at Saint Peter’s on Lexington and I doubt the house holds more than 150 seats), it suits the intimate quality of the story. The five musicians (upstage and mostly visible throughout) produce a sound that makes you believe there are ten of them back there.
The show starts strongly with an opening number about the power and influence of the movie industry that is melodic, full of movement and introduces us to the clever use of projections on movable flats that becomes a recurring theme. It grabs your attention immediately and sets the tone for the rest of the event. The script, such as it is, walks us through Cagney’s life, and is laced with lovely music. We meet him as a day laborer, cheated out of his pay, fired because he dared to stand up to “the Boss”. Looking for work, he auditions at a local vaudeville house (his mother had taught him to dance) where he not only gets the job but meets the woman who will be his wife. His first “act” has him dancing in a dress, a lovely comic turn. That same period in his life gives us what was my favorite song, “Falling in Love,” where Cagney and his soon to be wife find it hard to express their feelings. His Irish background is stressed as the beginning, with an almost stereotypical Irish mother, and the strong sense he has of having to take care of his family. In some ways, the character he created in film, the tough, scrapping little guy, was a reflection of his real life persona, although without the criminal element. The audience loved it, the person I went with loved it, and I enjoyed it a lot.
We travel with the Cagneys as they tour in vaudeville, as Jimmy gets a Broadway show and is cast in his first film. We see his “tough guy” character capture the public imagination, his eventual dissatisfaction and his desire to do something else. We celebrate his triumph in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” where he finally gets to return to his dancing, his USO tours and the accusations of his being a Communist sympathizer. The pace of the script moves briskly and while none of the original musical numbers are memorable, they help move the action along. You find your toes tapping and the laughs are frequent. We tend to forget that Cagney was an excellent dancer, and he tapped for at least an hour a day every day until he was well in his 80’s.
Now for the reservations. I admit to being a theatrical dinosaur and I cringe when I see talented actors in a small theatre wired with microphones. I know it is the state of musical theatre today, but I miss the sound of the unamplified voice. Most of the cast would not seem to need them, with the possible exception of Creighton, whose soft and gentle singing voice contrasts strangely with his dynamic portrayal of the star. He looks like Cagney, he moves like Cagney, and when he dances routines from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “The Seven Little Foys,” with the Bob Hope character (who played Eddie Foy in the film), he becomes Cagney. It is a remarkable performance.
There is a lot of original music, and while it is good music, I found myself waiting for the dialogue scenes that let us see the characters more intimately and deeply. They never came. There is a lot of George M. Cohan, another Irish-American musical legend, and while I love Cohan, the second act particularly is weighted with those tunes. The largely senior audience the day I saw the show loved it -– and after all, what’s not to love about George M. But I found I wanted more Cagney, more intimate looks into the critical moments of his life, more of the music of Creighton and Christopher McGowan, and a little less flag-waving. He was investigated by the Senate as a possible Communist sympathizer, he built and lost his own movie company, and yet these moments are presented more as introductions to musical numbers than as life-changing experiences. We see what happens as part of the broad narrative, but we never get to feel what happens to him because of these events. One of Cagney’s concerns in wanting to move away from the “tough guy” roles was a fear that his work would become an Irish stereotype, which was another reason he loved the George M. Cohan role. Being “tough”, and still supporting his family and his country, and loving music and dance were all part of what being Irish was about for Cagney, and he struggled throughout his career to maintain that balance in his public image.
Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner takes charge of the stage whenever he is on, and Ellen Zolezzi (who portrays Cagney’s wife and a lot of other roles) and Danette Holden (as Ma Cagney and many others) are strong performers and wonderful to listen to. Jeremy Benton is a strong dancer and an attractive personality; I wish he had worked harder at becoming Bob Hope in terms of speech and mannerisms. Hope and Cagney were friends for much of their lives, and appeared both on stage and in films together, and because the Cagney characterization is so good, we miss having the Hope character match up. Josh Walden portrays Cagney’s brother (yes, he does a lot of other roles too) and is a strong dancer and a good singer and holds his own in this uniformly strong company. Creighton certainly is the star but there are no weak performances.
To be clear, this is a delightful, intimate production that is thoroughly enjoyable. I think there is room for improvement, to make it a stronger and more moving show, and it would be strengthened with dialogue that would give us a little more Cagney and a little less Cohan. But if you are looking for an entertaining theatre experience without being challenged, shocked or embarrassed, “Cagney” is exactly what you’re looking for. The production plays through June 21.
Presented by the York Theatre Company.
Directed by Bill Castellino. Music Directed by Matt Perri. Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. Book by Peter Colley. Music and Lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern. Costume Design by Amy Clark. Scenic Design by James Morgan. Lighting Design by Brian Nason. Sound Design by Janie Bullard. Projection Design by Mark Pirolo. Properties Design by Kevin Maloof. Wig Design by Leah J. Loukos. Fight Director by Rick Sordelet. Music Coordination by Larry Lelli. Production Manager Cate DiGirolasmo. Production Stage Manager Larry Smiglewski. Cast: Cagney – Robert Creighton; Bob Hope and others – Jeremy Benton; Ma Cagney and others – Denette Holden; Jack Warner and others – Bruce Sabath; Bill Cagney and others – Josh Walden. Willie Cagney and others - Ellen Zolezzi. For more info, visit http://www.cagneythemusical.com.