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BWW Review: Cagney Lives On... Off-Broadway

Robert Creighton, embodying the spirit of James Cagney in this energetic, fast-paced, biographical musical, Cagney, playing at the Westside Theater/Upstairs, Off-Broadway, brings the Hollywood icon to life. He has the physical plant of Cagney, as well as a dynamic talent for tap dancing, singing, and playing the tough guy, not unlike Cagney. It was exhilarating to be in attendance at this high energy performance on Friday, June 8, 2016. The world premiere was in Florida, 2009. The show has gone through its own evolution on its way to New York.

Cagney was Creighton's dream child. He began creating it on his own, along the way collecting collaborators: notably Peter Colley, who wrote the book and Christopher McGovern, who wrote additional music and lyrics. Along with the original music were, of course, a few songs by George M. Cohan that are associated with Cagney, including Give my Regards to Broadway, Grand Old Flag, Over There, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, exciting the audience.

First on the stage was Bruce Sabath in the role of Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers Studios, in Hollywood, and the boss and verbal sparring partner of Cagney. Sabath exuded the "it" factor from every pore from the moment he appeared and throughout, all the while creating a believable character, equal in effect to Creighton's Cagney. The anticipation brewed as he introduced a few of the movie stars of the day. Being familiar with these stars and the films of the era, I was disappointed with the less than effective characters' delivery of their famous lines and their personalities, particularly evident as photos of the stars were projected on screens behind the actors. It was, however, an interesting history lesson of the movie business of the time.

In this cast of six, all but Creighton, played multiple roles. The Players (with the exception of Sabath, who was stellar throughout) did a better job of portraying characters who are less familiar. Ellen Zolezzi was fun as the bubbly Willie Cagney, Cagney's wife. Danette Holden was convincing as Ma Cagney and as Jane, Warner's attentive and smitten secretary.

Once Creighton burst onto the stage, he commanded attention, becoming Cagney. His performance was riveting, much in the same way Cagney's energy demands we keep our eyes on him in his films. His performance was enough like Cagney's to transport the audience to another place and time. The tap routines, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, the award winning choreographer of Broadway's On The Town, exploded like firecrackers, giving Creighton and company rhythms to sing with their feet and limbs.

With the band sometimes visible between movable screens, at the back of the stage, the story was told as a series of flashbacks emanating from conversation between Cagney and Warner, waiting backstage at a Screen Actors Guild Awards Ceremony, as Cagney was about to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Through the lens of the differences between these two men, we see a life, those around him, and an era. There was never a lull. The history unfolded with the joy of music and movement.

All in all, a good time was had by all! Don't miss this marvelous experience.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

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