BWW Review: CAGNEY Erupts Joyously at the El Portal
CAGNEY/book by Peter Colley/music & lyrics by Robert Creighton & Christopher McGovern/choreography by Joshua Bergasse/musical director: Gerald Sternbach/director: Bill Castellino/El Portal Theatre, NoHo/Debbie Reynolds Mainstage/through October 29
It's quite rare and a sheer delight when an original bio becomes a bigtime hit onstage. There have been many shows over the years about iconic stars like Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore among others. but only Barrymore stands apart as memorable. CAGNEY currently playing the El Portal through October 29 goes a giant step beyond; not only is it a genuinely intelligent biography, but also has great drama, romance and musical entertainment for one and all. Opening off-Broadway in 2016, the show was nominated for several Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and witnessing the terrifically dynamic ensemble of six actors headed by Robert Creighton as James Cagney, it's easy to see why. Creighton not only looks like Cagney, but possesses a similar Irish personality and tough yet tender charm that made the original talent such an icon. The other five actors surrounding him Danette Holden, Josh Walden, Jeremy Benton, Ellen Z. Wright and Bruce Sabath are triple threat performers who brilliantly play a myriad of characters each.
Peter Colley has written a book that covers most of Cagney's life from the streets of New York to vaudeville and Broadway and his quick rise to fame on the big screen. The Hollywood segment is really a razor sharp look at how the studio system molded and manipulated a star. The book also manages to dig deep and pull out flesh and blood characterizations. Even Jack Warner (Sabath) has, at times, a less than brittle side. By play's end we understand Cagney's unending struggle to find himself. We see him as first and foremost a down.to.earth human being who had to struggle fiercely to create his own individual style as a star in Hollywood and ... a full-fledged humanitarian who loved America and stood up to champion its causes. Colley presents a man who loves his mother (Holden), marries his vaudeville costar Willie (Wright) and stays married to her throughout his career without ever straying... and finally a rebel rouser who goes to Washington in 1938 to speak out against charges of communism, reminiscent of the McCarthy era yet to come.
Even when he struggles against playing gangsters, Cagney stays true to his ideals and molds characters from the ground up, bucking the constant demands of Jack Warner. Colley takes us to an uneasy meeting of Cagney and Warner at the 1978 SAG awards where Cagney receives the Lifetime Achievement Award. The story flashes back from there to show the ups and downs of their working relationship through the years with Yankie Doodle Dandy and White Heat the top two film successes. The working years of the story unfold as well through original musical numbers composed by Creighton and Christopher McGovern, showing the initial vaudeville years and later the movie triumphs and flops though original songs combined with George M. Cohan's signature numbers from ... Dandy and The Seven Little Foys. So, the music and book flow beautifully together throughout both acts of the show.
As to director Castellino's fast paced staging and Bergasse's thrilling choreography - what is it about tap that keeps the audience consistently enthralled? - and the ensemble who work together as one, this little show never lets down. Creighton is a marvel as Cagney whether he is talking, singing or dancing. He creates a Cagney that Cagney himself would be proud to watch. The rest of the cast are so good... let me give you one example. In a scene where Warner is ordering his secretary (Holden) to do this and that, I couldn't take my eyes off her. Every move from smiling to pouring his coffee - even if she had to walk half way around the room to do it - to "Yes, sir...No, sir" to a simple frown before making her exit, Holden had me mesmerized. And in the next scene stage left seconds later she emerges as Cagney's mother in a different costume and wig. This type of stamina and skill are consistent with all six actors.
Kudos to James Morgan for his functional and attractive set design with orchestra onstage behind the scrim, to Martha Bromelmeier for vibrant costumes, to Janie Bullard for fine sound and to Mark Pirolo for projection design that adds pertinent info to each scene, especially the movie posters.
Don't miss CAGNEY through October 29 only! This theatrical gem will begin a national tour in 2018.
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)