Actor Robert Creighton, starring in the Off-Broadway musical Cagney, is the reincarnation of the multi-talented actor James Cagney. He looks, sings, and dances life the legendary performer. Creighton has the energy, charisma, and self-confidence to pull off what could be a daunting task.
Book writer Peter Colley has utilized the device of flashbacks to highlight the movie star’s career. We meet Cagney and studio mogul Jack Warner waiting outside the auditorium of the 1978 Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. The actor, aged, but still full of fire, is to receive a lifetime achievement honor and his old boss is to introduce him. The two rivals, partners in movie making, recount their often contentious relationship of decades ago. These brief encounters are the springboard for the relatively breezy and appealing storyline that traces the major moments in Cagney’s life. We follow him from his beginnings on the streets of New York City, through his time criss-crossing the country on the vaudeville circuit to, finally, his arrival in Hollywood. Along the way famous move scenes are recreated, he marries, and his support for the downtrodden, which get him in trouble with Congress’ investigation of Communist sympathizers, are portrayed.
We see Cagney as the tough guy hoodlum, the song and dance man and independent producer. Creighton, in a career defining role, never lets up in his mission to captivate and dazzle the audience. The other actors and actresses—Jeremy Benton, Josh Walden, Danette Holden, and Ellen Zolezzi—are impressive through their vocal numbers and high-spirited dancing. Bruce Sabath as studio chief Jack Warner is deliciously combative with an ego the size of Los Angeles.
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse has created numerous crowd pleasing tap dance routines for the whole cast, Creighton and Benton, in the guise of Cagney’s longtime friend Bob Hope, and individual performers. The Act II opener is full of bounce, muscle, and razz-ma-tazz. Besides the now shuttered Dames at Sea there is no better tap On or Off-Broadway this season.
The score, primarily by Christopher McGovern, but also Robert Creighton as well as a few compositions by George M. Cohan, is more serviceable within the production. This isn’t a criticism. The songs, tuneful and lovingly and humorously presented, won’t have much of an afterlife, but work favorably within the activity on stage.
Director Bill Castellino keeps the action lively, loose, good-natured and engaging. Scenes flow easily into one another to form a satisfying whole as opposed to a simple pageantry of events. The spotlight is smartly kept on Creighton, but Castellino adroitly incorporates the ensemble, playing multiple roles throughout the show, to give the musical a heftier feel.
Cagney, a showcase for the talents of actor Robert Creighton as well as a thoroughly entertaining piece of musical theater.