Thursday, May 28, 2015

CAGNEY: A Musical Biography of Actor James Cagney Is Trumped By George M. Cohan

Robert Creighton and the Cast of CAGNEY

After the nasty winter we’ve just slugged our way through, it seems incredible that the good old Fourth of July is just around the bend. Might I suggest you add to your Netflix queue Yankee Doodle Dandy, that grand old 1942 movie musical starring James Cagney as the renowned composer and performer George M. Cohan?

Such a thought may very well have inspired Cagney, the limp and meandering musical now at the York Theatre, whose only truly spirited moments come during the scenes where the original songs (some written by the show’s star Robert Creighton, and some by Christopher McGovern) are cast aside in favor of a medley of classic Cohan tunes. Add some thumping tap routines choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (Tony-nominated for On The Town; love to know how he got involved with this project), and suddenly Cagney sputters briefly to life. 

Unfortunately, there is little about the rest of the show that lives up to those few minutes of pleasure.

Cagney, with a book by Peter Colley and directed by Bill Castellino, is essentially a bio-play with songs, sketchily relating the career of the feisty Irishman from New York—from his early days as a dancer and comedian in vaudeville to his rise as a Hollywood superstar, mostly under contract to Warner Brothers and its kingpin Jack Warner. 

Mr. Creighton (you might remember him as Durdles in the delightful The Mystery of Edwin Drood from a few years back) does a creditable job in the lead role, with enthusiasm and charm to spare. And Bruce Sabath manages to surmount the material to turn in a fine performance as Jack Warner. 

But even allowing for the minimal staging at the York, there’s not much “there” there. The six cast members, all of whom except for Creighton gamely take on multiple roles, run through what amounts to a checklist of moments. We meet Cagney’s mother (Danette Holden), apparently a big influence on his life; his wife Billie (Ellen Zolezzi) whom he hooks up with during his early stint in vaudeville; and some of his friends, including Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton). Check. Check. Check.

It’s mostly routine stuff—including the musical numbers (except for the excellent Cohan setpiece at the top of Act II)—until, finally, the germ of an interesting theme emerges, dealing with how Cagney fought in vain against being typecast as a hoodlum, and then later reshaped those very characters into memorable, haunting individuals. The strongest scene depicts Cagney seizing hold of the movie White Heat and turning it into a masterpiece of its genre. Creighton handles it beautifully, quite likely because there is finally something of substance for him to work with.

So what is it to be?  Not a musical, I think.  As much as I enjoyed the Cohan material, the new original songs really don't add much and, in fact, simply heighten our awareness that Cagney is caught in a clash of two approaches. There are tantalizing bits, though not nearly enough, about the star’s pro-union stance and his outspoken position on social issues (he was a supporter of the battle for justice for the Scottsboro Boys, for instance). That side of the Cagney story, along with his efforts to change his image as an actor, would make for a far more compelling play.  As it stands, however, give me Yankee Doodle Dandy any day!

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