Peter Colley’s book is framed by Cagney’s receiving the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1978 and ironically introduced by his old antagonist, studio head Jack Warner. Then the musical becomes a flashback to his humble beginnings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When his mother nixes his plan to become a boxer which paid good money, he finds work in vaudeville (first seen in a woman’s dress), becomes a tap dancer, and later a Broadway star. We see him out in Hollywood and in recreations of iconic scenes from Public Enemy and White Heat.
His leftist and socialist beliefs lead him to be investigated by the Dies Commission, the forerunner of the House Un-American Activities Committee. His role as the patriotic George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (for which he won the Academy Award) is used to bring down the first act curtain. Discontentment with his roles as gangsters, womanizers and thugs inspires him to start his own production company but the public doesn’t like his new image. He returns to Warner Brothers with a new contract and higher salary but is condemned to playing more of the same. He worries in song about “How Will I Be Remembered.”
While the show uses three sets of songwriters, Christopher McGovern, three songs by Creighton himself, and iconic musical numbers by George M. Cohan that Cagney sang in Yankee Doodle Dandy, it is the Cohan classics that are the most impressive. While these songs were smash hits in the 1942 film and have become part of the American songbook, it is interesting how they still bring an audience to an ovation. Cohan’s “Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” are used as first and second act finales, while the USO Medley representing his W.W. II work includes such old favorites as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “HARRIGAN,” “Mary,” and “Johnnie Get Your Gun.”
To all of these Cohan numbers, choreographer Joshua Bergasse has added thrilling tap dancing sequences by most of the cast, an opportunity that makes Cagney’s life a natural for being turned into a stage musical. Among songs by McGovern are the clever “Warner at Work” with his screenwriters creating roles for the star which in the second act is used as the equally clever “Cagney at Work” when the actor hires his own writers to change his image. The opening number, “Black and White,” which introduces us to the Hollywood of the 1930’s, is smartly used in the second act with new lyrics for the Dies Commission investigating so-called communist activities.
With direction by Bill Castellino and a unit set by James Morgan enhanced by projection design by Mark Pirolo, Cagney moves swiftly though it covers a great deal of ground. Creighton’s poignant portrayal of the star gets better and deeper as the show goes on as the character finds both his own voice and stands up for his rights in Hollywood. He is also a terrific tap dancer which stands him in good stead in this role. The rest of the cast of six plays many roles, except for Bruce Sabath who is mainly seen as studio head Jack Warner, a portrayal that makes him as interesting as Cagney himself, and a force to be reckoned with.
Among the assorted roles, Ellen Zolezzi is charming as vaudeville actress “Willie” Vernon who eventually becomes Mrs. Cagney, while Danette Holden as Warner’s secretary as well as Cagney’s mother indicates she has the backbone to survive in this company. Jeremy Benton and Josh Walden play all of the other men as well as demonstrating their special tap dancing skills. The one failing of the show is that the brief portrayals of such Hollywood luminaries as Bob Hope, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Shirley Temple and Al Jolson aren’t convincing but with such a fast-paced evening and so small a cast, there is obviously no time for additional make-up and hair to transform them.
The new musical Cagney is several things: a musical bio of the famous star, a cavalcade of period songs, and an insider view of Hollywood under the studio system. Though it doesn’t break new ground, it is an entertaining and informative show which reminds you of many beloved and iconic film moments.
Cagney (through June 21, 2015)
York Theatre Company, at Saint Peter’s (Citicorp Building), 54th Street and Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission