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Review: 'Cagney'

by Photo of Paul Hansen

A Son of The Big Apple is celebrated in ‘Cagney.’

Review: 'Cagney'

Ellen Zolezzi, Josh Walden, Danette Holden and Jeremy Benton in the New York premiere of the new musical, “Cagney", now in performance through June 21 at The York Theatre Company. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg.

As James Morgan, the Producing Artistic Director of The York Theatre Company said before a performance of Cagney that I recently attended, it is fitting that this musical is finally being performed in New York. After a number of out of town productions, the show is at last being staged in the city where James Cagney was born and grew up. The musical is a celebration of one of the major stars of Hollywood. His formidable persona I suspect was in many respects formed by the demanding city of his youth.

Cagney along with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart were three major “tough guy” contract players at the Warner Brothers Studio in the 30’s and the 40’s. They helped establish the studio’s reputation for producing hard hitting, urban gangster pictures. The musical makes the interesting point that one of the reasons Cagney et al. were so popular is they provided a model for resilience in the rough times of the Depression.

The show recounts Cagney’s impoverished youth in The Big Apple, his struggling years on the vaudeville circuit, and his discovery by Hollywood while in a production on Broadway. Signed to Warner Brothers, he quickly became one of its leading stars.

Aided by his similar looks and impressive dancing, Robert Creighton gives a very credible performance as Cagney. Part of Cagney’s appeal was the sense of danger that hovered around his persona. All in all I thought Creighton seemed more comfortable and successful in recreating the more sensitive side of Cagney. Cagney actually wrote poetry and got in some difficulty in his career when his socially conscious politics were considered too left wing. Perhaps the sense of warmth that Creighton radiates is closer to Cagney’s true character. Impressively, Creighton also co-wrote the music and lyrics of the show with Christopher McGovern.

Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner – Cagney’s sometime boss and sometime nemesis – is a major asset to the production. Made-up to look eerily like the studio boss who controlled Warner Brothers, a substantial portion of the plot deals with the periodic tension between the two men. Much of this strain centered around Cagney’s unhappiness with the scripts he was offered, his salary and general lack of control over his career while at Warner Brothers.

In addition to being a formidable actor, Cagney was also an accomplished song and dance man. The most impressive and rousing moments of the show are probably the dance numbers which were choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. Music for some of these sequences was taken from Cagney’s iconic Yankee Doodle Dandy, a patriotic film released in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

Despite the fact that all of Cagney’s movies were filmed many decades ago, there are certain scenes which still resonate in our culture. At the performance I attended, there were murmurs of anticipation moments before the re-enactment of Cagney shoving a grapefruit in the face of Mae Clark in his breakout film The Public Enemy (1931). Cagney’s famous “Top of the world” scene atop a big gas tank in White Heat (1949) also receives extensive treatment, and the musical makes the point that Cagney never actually uttered the signature phrase “You dirty rat” in a film.

As other reviewers have noted, the production of Cagney was far less successful in casting actors that looked like other famous figures - Bob Hope and Errol Flynn, for example. Perhaps it would have been better to have integrated movie clips of those stars rather than live performers.

Those wishing to steep themselves in movie lore and understand one of the most compelling screen actors in the history of Hollywood would do well to attend Cagney. I must have had a good time because the only thing I wanted to do after the show was over was go home and watch a James Cagney film, and other memorable movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s from the Warner Brothers vault.

Cagney is playing through June 21 at The Theater at Saint Peter’s located at 619 Lexington Avenue.

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