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Review: Much-Improved Bio-Musical CAGNEY Returns Off-Broadway In A Flashy Producton

It was ten months ago when composer/lyricist Robert Creighton buck and winged it to the York Theatre with a spirited and gutsy performance as the screen's greatest tough guy song and dance man, James Cagney.

Robert Creighton (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

His pocket-sized musical vehicle, Cagney, while certainly rousing and entertaining, came off then as a promising work in progress; one that needed more heat to match the potential of its dramatic moments.

CAGNEY's return to Off-Broadway, with the same cast, director and choreographer, is a slicker, fuller production that should send Westside Theatre audiences out with big smiles. Under Bill Castellino's direction, Creighton gives a much stronger, more empathetic performance and the whole show moves at a swift and steady pace.

The star wrote just four of the score's selections, with the rest penned by Christopher McGovern. Their work is capable and catchy, but the musical climaxes are reserved for the George M. Cohan tunes that wrap up each act and are featured in the second half's most memorable dance sequence.

Bookending the story with scenes depicting the evening in 1978 when Cagney accepted the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, Peter Colley's book covers a lot of years, but concentrates on the character's artistic ambitions.

After losing John Barrymore to a New York production of HAMLET, movie mogul Jack Warner (terrifically hard-boiled Bruce Sabath) tells one of his flunkies to sign up some unknown kid who just got great reviews on Broadway. Dismayed to find out the kid is a short, streetwise punk instead of a handsome leading man, he sticks him in a supporting role in a low-budget gangster movie.

But when Cagney proves to have an irresistible charisma playing the tough guy, he's graduated to the lead. When THE PUBLIC ENEMY proves a hit, Warner orders his writers to start cranking out identical vehicles for his new star. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY gives the actor a chance to show off other talents, but when it becomes apparent that Cagney will never be given the opportunity to stretch artistically under Warner and do uplifting films that will inspire people, he forms his own production company.

Josh Walden, Ellen Zolezzi, Robert Creighton,
Danette Holden and Jeremy Benton (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Though his mother, brother and wife appear as characters (Danette Holden Josh Walden and Ellen Zolezzi, who all appear in various guises), the actor's personal life is barely touched upon, though his left-leaning politics and professional friendship with Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton) provide some textures. Thus, Cagney isn't crowded with plot, as some bio-musicals tend to be, but it doesn't tell you much about the man either.

Think of it as more of an entertaining salute that really shifts into high gear whenever choreographer Joshua Bergasse has the cast flashing their tap shoes, which occurs more frequently as the evening progresses.

Creighton sings with gusto, dances with even more and is an extremely likeable presence, suggesting the guts and determination that attracted Depression-era audiences to Cagney's gritty portrayals. His performance is most emotionally effective in the second act, when the star makes a reluctant return to Warner to make WHITE HEAT and his experience and developed acting skills allow him to elevate his familiar performance into one of high art.

And while Cagney isn't high art, it's peppy, sincere and a heck of a lot of fun.

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From This Author - Michael Dale