BWW Reviews: Bio-Musical CAGNEY Has Legs but Needs To Pack More Heat
The last time a Broadway composer/lyricist wrote himself a tough-guy song and dance man title role, it was the considerably miscast Peter Allen in Legs Diamond. If composer/lyricist Robert Creighton ever comes to Broadway in his spirited bio-musical Cagney, he'll certainly be more believable playing one of Hollywood's most unlikely movie stars, James Cagney.
Creighton only wrote four selections for director Bill Castellino's enjoyable pocket-sized production at The York. The rest of the new songs were penned by Christopher McGovern, but as capable as their work is, the musical climaxes are provided by the George M. Cohan tunes that wrap up each act and are featured in the second half's most memorable dance sequence.
Though the narrative covers a lot of years, bookwriter Peter Colley 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.
Though his mother and wife appear as characters, his 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 six-member 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. Acting-wise, he's at his best late 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.
At its present state, Cagney is certainly entertaining but it always hints of something that wants to be bigger. With a more-involved text and a full-chorus production better framing its star's performance, this musical might start packing some serious heat.