Shoving a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in Public Enemy, George M. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle Dandy song and dance numbers for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the “Top of The World, Ma!” finale from White Heat are among the exciting factual highlights of this old-fashioned chronicle.
Born and raised in New York City’s Lower East Side of Irish extraction, the red-haired Cagney survived hard times and supported his widowed mother by doing a variety of odd jobs and boxing before becoming a dancer in vaudeville. He grew up with knowledge of Yiddish due to the area’s large Jewish population. He would understand the word “schmaltz” as a reference to excessive sentimentality and there’s a lot of that here.
The show’s rudimentary book by Peter Colley is a jumbled assemblage of true events, cloying clichés, compressed chronology and simplistic characterizations. Much of it plays like a homage to the Warner Brothers bio-dramas of the 1930’s and 1940’s with their often fanciful retellings of notable lives.
Above the stage there are frequent projections setting the time and place on an old time movie theater marquee. The framing device is Cagney receiving a life time achievement award from the Screen Actor’s Guild in 1978, presented to him by his nemesis, studio chief Jack Warner. The show actually opens with a corny musical number as Warner interacts with stars of the era such as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Al Jolson and Lauren Bacall. Like a several other sequences it comes across as extraneous.
Still, Mr. Colley has crafted several inspired episodes that are quite effective. The second act contains a dazzling sequence with Creighton and the cast simulating a performance for US soldiers during W.W. II. It’s one of the high points that push the show to overall success.
The score co-written by Christopher McGovern and Mr. Creighton is decent and has some pleasant and tuneful if not outstanding songs. “How Will I Be Remembered” is a wistful mediation by Cagney that is quite stirring.
Bill Castellino’s solid direction keeps the disparate elements of the material together at a steady pace. The drama, gags and time shifting are all unified and coherent. Much of Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is simplistic but brilliantly succeeds during the Gypsy-style vaudeville portions.
A cast of five talented actors plays the myriad of people in Cagney’s life. Due to the choppy structure and the speedy transitions, the portrayals are often amiably superficial – though some have depth.
Bruce Sabath has a terrific “Billy Flynn” in Chicago razzle dazzle as Jack Warner. Ellen Zolezzi is wonderful as the love of Cagney’s life, Willie. Ms. Zolezzi’s singing and dancing is most captivating when the couple first meets backstage and dance The Peabody.
The delightful Danette Holden valiantly and winningly does her best as the stock characters of Cagney’s Irish mother and as Warner’s harried secretary. With his quirky good looks Jeremy Benton scores as Bob Hope and as an old-time vaudeville comic with his forceful performing skills. Mr. Benton is lanky, personable and appealing. Josh Walden is stalwart as Cagney’s brother Bill, and suitably flashy in several other roles.
James Morgan’s inventive scenic design cleverly consists of panels with slide projections (evocatively created by Mark Pirolo) of the various locales and other small-scale elements that visually convey everything with precision. The variety of period clothing for the many characters is very well represented by Martha Bromelmeier’s resourceful costume design. There are plenty of red, white, and blue sequins for the patriotic musical numbers.
Michael Gilliam’s lighting design and Janie Bullard’s sound design are highly proficient and have the necessary suggestive dimensions for the various eras and places.
Its good-natured tone and Robert Creighton’s colossal performance make Cagney satisfying entertainment especially for those familiar with the movie legend.
Cagney (extended through September 25)
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.cagneythemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission