By Karen Isaacs
Cagney, the new off-Broadway musical is a toe-tapping delight. You might not think that possible, if you only know James Cagney from his iconic gangster movie roles of the ‘30s and ’40.
But Cagney actually had learned how to dance as a child, and got his start in show business in the chorus of a Broadway musical, Every Star, which featured military personnel in which Cagney played a woman. From there he went on to a variety of musicals and plays on Broadway and then into vaudeville before Hollywood called.
He was signed by Warner Brothers Studio (where he was joined by Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, and others).
The musical is framed as a series of flashbacks. Jack Warner, the head of the studio, played by Bruce Sabath, opens the show with a delightful number “Black and White” which reflects the studio’s history of producing many films in the cheaper black and white format. From there we move backstage at the Screen Actors Guild ceremony where Cagney received a Life Achievement Award.
Warner is to introduce Cagney which the actor views as ironic; he battled the studio head during the years of the “studio system,” for control over his own career. Later Cagney was a union activist servings as president of SAG. Warner, of course, hated the idea of a union.
The show continues more or less in chronological order, introducing us to his mother and brothers (his sister, Jeanne, is strangely missing), a girl, Winnie, who became his wife, and a variety of celebrities.
The weakest part of the show is the appearance of the celebrities – some his Warner Brother co-workers and others like Bob Hope. The performers are not particularly true to the appearance and sound of the celebrities and the interactions seem forced.
Of course, there is the almost required scenes about the blacklist; Cagney was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his failure when he tried to produce films that he felt passionate about. They flopped and he went back to Warner Brothers.
What does work extremely well in the show a meeting with Eddie Foy, Jr. (Cagney was part of the 1950s film, Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys), the scenes with Winnie and with Warner. I also enjoyed the Cohan numbers and the USO scene; Cagney worked hard with the USO during WWII.
Robert Creighton displays his multiple talents in this show. He wrote the music and lyrics for about a third of the show; Christopher McGovern did a third and the final part is Cohan. The songs are effective; standouts include “Black and White,” “Crazy ‘Bout You,” “Falling in Love,” among others.
Creighton is also a dynamite singer, dancer and actor. In a small theater, you really see
him up close. Ellen Zolezzi is also terrific as Winnie (and some other characters). Another standout is Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner. He, too, also plays other roles. The remaining cast members – Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Josh Walden – perform multiple smaller roles. All are excellent singers and dancers.
The book by Peter Colley is serviceable and keeps the show moving.
The direction by Bill Castellino and the delightful choreography by Joshua Bergasse help maximize the show’s potential.
For those who want a more intimate musical experience, Cagney is a worthwhile choice. I was astonished to hear a gentleman behind me, who was certainly in his ‘50s, ask his seat mate “Who is Jimmy Cagney?”
Cagney is at the Westside Theatre 407 W. 43rd St, New York City. For tickets contact telecharge.com.