June 27, 2015

Why "Significant Other" is a Significant Play

The gay best friend has become a stock character in contemporary plays. From The Heidi Chronicles to If/Then, he’s the sidekick there with a shoulder to cry on, a snappy wisecrack to add comic relief but no inner life of his own. Now, the gifted young playwright Joshua Harmon moves that character from the sidelines into the spotlight with his moving new play Significant Other.

Its protagonist is Jordan Berman, a twentysomething gay guy who has three female besties: the lovable narcissist Kiki, the wry cynic Vanessa and the quartet’s salt-of-the-earth anchor Laura, with whom Jordan is so close that they tell one another they will marry if no one else will have them. If this were Oz, Kiki would be the Lion; Vanessa, the Tinman; Laura, the loyal and most beloved Scarecrow but Jordan would have the central role of Dorothy.

The foursome have been BFFs since college, seeing one another through Vanessa’s on-again-off-again affair with a much older married man, Laura’s half-hearted romances and the timorous Jordan’s crush on a hottie who’s just started working at his office. When the play opens, they’re all at Kiki’s bachelorette party, trying to calm her bridezilla behavior and wondering what her marriage will mean for them as a group.

As everyone who has been through the rite of passage into adulthood will know, it will mean that the intimacy of even the tightest bonds between them will loosen, particularly as the others also find partners with whom to share their lives. And that, in turn, will mean feelings of loneliness and abandonment for the person who doesn’t find that special someone.

In this case that person is Jordan, whose only other significant relationship is with his aging grandmother. Jordan tries to be happy for his friends but because this is his play and not theirs, Harmon makes plain the painful cost of being the sidekick, the one who doesn’t get to be the bride, or in this case, even a bridesmaid.  

And yet, this is far from a dour evening in the theater. Harmon, the author of the rightly-praised Bad Jews (click here to read my review) knows how to balance humor and pathos (click here to read a Q&A with him). And he has great fun with the modern day rituals of mating and marrying, from I-like-you-do-you-like me email to the selection of just-for-us songs that couples choose for the first dance at their wedding.

Director Trip Cullman (click here to read an interview with him) has crafted an equally engaging production that moves in almost cinematic fashion, helped immensely by Mark Wendland’s smart, multi-tiered set, which I'll confess looked odd to me at first until my theatergoing buddy Bill pointed out how effortlessly it flowed, with the aid of Japhy Weideman’s astute lighting, from various wedding reception halls, to Jordan’s office, to the different apartments in which he, his grandmother and his friends live.

And the show is perfectly cast. Sas Goldberg as Kiki, Carra Patterson as Vanessa and, most especially, Lindsay Mendez as Laura are so spot-on that you know exactly the kind of woman each character is just by the way they’re sitting in their chairs when the light comes up on the first scene. 

An equal shoutout has to go to John Behlmann and Luke Smith, who play multiple roles and do it so effectively that it took me a while to realize that there weren’t more actors in the show. Meanwhile, the inestimable Barbara Barrie plays the grandmother without resorting to the clichés of being overly-cute or overly-wise as she tries to provide hope for Jordan.

But it’s particularly hard to think of anyone who would make a better Jordan than Gideon Glick, who has made a specialty of these kinds of gawky but endearing characters in shows such as Speech and Debate and Spring Awakening (click here to read a profile of him). 

When Glick's Jordan said “no one has ever told me they loved me,” there was an audible chorus of empathetic sighs from the audience at the performance Bill and I attended. But Significant Other also allows Glick to show other colors—cruelty, selfishness—that help to make his character a fully-fleshed out man. 

Now, there are moments when Glick’s technique abandons him and emotions overtake him so much that it’s difficult to catch all the words pouring out of Jordan. But even so, his performance—and this play—is a testament to the fact that even the most hackneyed character can be made significant.

June 24, 2015

"Gloria" Takes Its Author into New Territory

In some ways, Gloria, which has been extended at the Vineyard Theatre through July 18, isn’t remarkable at all. Like a growing number of books, movies, magazine articles and even other plays, it tells the story of a traumatic incident and the media aftershocks that follow. 

But there is one really remarkable thing about Gloria: it’s written by the young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose previous plays (Neighbors, Appropriate, An Octoroon) have dealt with the issue of race and this one doesn’t do that. 

And that's a good thing. Too often, in the theater and elsewhere, the assumption is made that the only thing people of color care about is the subject of race. Which, of course, isn’t true at all. 

So it’s significant that an African-American playwright as talented as Jacobs-Jenkins (click here to read a profile about him) has broken free from the pigeonhole and chosen to speak out about another strain on contemporary American society: the trivializing tendency to commercialize even the worst moments of our lives.

Gloria begins on an ordinary morning in the offices of a magazine, which some folks have speculated is a stand-in for The New Yorker, where Jacobs-Jenkins once worked. 

Its largely Ivy-educated editorial assistants are the usual motley crew of a slacker guy with a going-nowhere book proposal secreted away in his desk drawer, the office princess who can’t even bother getting to work on time and an earnest worker bee. 

Jacobs-Jenkins hasn't gone colorblind; parts are written specifically as African-American and Asian-American, as well as white. But the great thing is that their color doesn't define any of the characters. 

As the show opens, they're all griping about their demanding bosses and gossiping about a depressing party given the night before by the mousy copy editor Gloria and attended by only one of them, the slacker Dean.

The dialog is witty and entertaining, particularly for a New York audience filled with people who had or have jobs just like these. But eventually something happens so shocking that I literally gasped out loud. 

As regular readers know, I try to keep these posts spoiler free but I want to be even more careful than usual in describing this show because much of its power comes from not knowing what will happen next.

The scenes that followed my gasp deal with the aftermath of the event that precipitated it, as those affected by the incident not only struggle to recover from it but compete to cash in on their version of what happened. 

And here's another remarkable thing about Gloria: aided by the deft direction of Evan Cabnet, Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t overplay the characters' literal or moral tugs-of-war, which makes their solipsism—and, by implication, that of the broader society—all the more disturbing.

The six-member cast, a mix of off-Broadway vets and newbies, is superb. It’s tough to single any of them out, although Ryan Spahn as Dean and Michael Crane as a cranky fact-checker are given the meatiest parts and they make feasts of them. The creative crew does a bang-up job too, including (a bit of a spoiler) fight choreographer J. David Brimmer.

Theater companies are queuing up to work with Jacobs-Jenkins. Over the past five years, his plays have been done by the Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Soho Rep and Yale Rep and he’s got commissions to do new works for LCT3 and MTC. Smart theatergoers should be lining up too, whether he’s writing about race or anything else.

June 20, 2015

"Doctor Faustus" Commits Too Many Sins

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was “The Exorcist” of its day. Sixteenth century theatergoers were so horrified by Marlowe’s retelling of the tragic story of the ambitious scholar who sells his soul to the Devil that they reportedly passed out, vomited and even fled the theater in fear.

So imagine my confusion when the new adaptation of Doctor Faustus that opened at Classic Stage Company this week turned out to be a comedy. Then imagine my dismay when it turned out to be a not very funny one.

Marlowe’s plays get produced far less often than those of his contemporary Shakespeare but both my theatergoing buddy Bill and I had been so taken with the thrilling version of his tragedy Tamburlaine that Theatre for a New Audience put on last fall (click here for my review) that we were really curious to see what CSC would do with this one.

Also as fans (me former, Bill current) of the CBS drama “The Good Wife,” we were also up for seeing two of its stars Chris Noth and Zach Grenier as Faustus and Mephistopheles, the demon who acts as an intermediary between the doctor and the Devil.

Alas, they, in varying degrees, also disappointed. Grenier does manage to give Mephistopheles an appropriate—if one note—melancholy. But Noth seems cowed by the demands of his role. 

Noth captures neither the exhilaration Faustus feels as his deal with the Devil makes him all-powerful, even able to summon at whim Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy from the dead, nor the anguish Faustus experiences as he realizes that he has made a terrible bargain that will condemn him to eternal damnation.

Both Noth and Grenier are stage vets whom I've seen do fine work in the past (click here to read an interview with Noth) and so I’m laying most of the blame for this lackluster production on Andrei Belgrader, who not only directed it but, along with David Bridel, did the adaptation. 

Belgrader apparently felt that modern audiences are less into lofty musings about Heaven and Hell than those of five centuries ago and so he’s tried to hook them with the opiate of today’s young masses: comedy, the lower and the more ribald the better. 

Consequently he and Bridel have shifted the focus from Faustus and Mephistopheles to the doctor’s servant Robin and a pal, here pointedly called Dick, who steal a necromancy text from Faustus and haplessly attempt to conjure up the life they most desire. 

Some modern day scholars have argued that the original comic scenes are so out of keeping with the rest of the play that they must have been added after Marlowe's premature death from a stabbing at just 29. But others say that he wrote them himself as a way to alleviate some of the tension in his demonic tragedy. 

Either way, Belgrader doubles down on them. Lucas Caleb Rooney and Ken Cheeseman, the actors who play these fools, are amusing at first (they’d be great as Twelfth Night’s comic duo Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek) but the shtick here gets old fast. They also pull some audience members into their antics; I put on my evil face so they wouldn’t choose me.

But I wasn’t all that taken with the approach to the Faustus storyline either. I was particularly turned off by a scene in which one of the female actors was required to appear nude. And the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins that so shocked Elizabethan audiences just seemed tedious. Plus, I only counted six sins. 

In fact, there was a cut-rate air to the entire production, which Bill joked must have cost a nickel. There was practically no scenery, with the exception of a few pieces of furniture that a stagehand literally dragged on and off.  

Similarly, Mephistopheles is supposed to make his first appearance as a monstrous creature but the one that shows up here looks like it was borrowed from a junior high school production.

I’m going to resist the temptation to end this review with a pun on the words hell or sin. But feel free to invent your own.

June 17, 2015

"Office Politics" Sidesteps Its Real Drama

Office Politics is the kind of show that I rarely see. Its playwright, director and actors are all new to me. Its entire run, including previews, is just two weeks (it closes this weekend). And it’s playing at the tiny June Havoc Theater in the Garment District, in a Cineplex-type space where you can intermittently hear the play that’s running next door.

But what drew me to the show was the description of its storyline: “when a white male co-worker makes an off-the-cuff racially insensitive remark to his boss’s black female assistant, what seems like a harmless joke snowballs, suddenly catapulting the ad sales office of a women's magazine into turmoil.”

I’m always up for plays that deal with meaty subjects like race and class and this one sounded like a not-so-distant relative of Rasheeda Speaking, another play about interracial office politics that fascinated my friend Joy and me earlier this year (click here for my review).

And so she and I thought it might be fun to see this one and compare the approaches that the playwrights, both white, took to the continually knotty issue of race, particularly as it plays out in the kinds of quotidian offices where most of have, at one time or another, worked.

The central character in Office Politics is Tonya, the black single mom of a teenage son and a recent hire at a magazine called Healthy Woman. Tonya’s the only black person on the staff but that doesn’t cause any problems initially. She’s great at her job as the publisher’s assistant and her co-workers are genuinely welcoming, especially Len, a nice-guy sales rep who develops a crush on her.

Conflict arises when Bruce, the alpha-male in the office, says something suggesting that Tonya’s son, whom he's never met, is a street hood. She demands an apology. He refuses to give one. Len gets stuck in the middle. 

It’s the kind of he-said-she-said scenario that takes on an even more volatile edge when race is mixed in. Playwright Marcy Lovitch, who has a degree in journalism, works hard to give equal time to every side of the argument so that no one comes off as entirely right or entirely wrong. 

That might be admirable in real life but such deliberate evenhandedness can suck the energy right out of a drama so Lovitch tries to jazz things up with a subplot involving an affair between Bruce and another woman in the office who are cuckolding her husband who also works there.

Unfortunately, that second storyline is just an unnecessary distraction from the main one. Joel Drake Johnson kept his focus tightly on the race question in Rasheeda Speaking but neither show reaches any satisfying conclusions, an accurate reflection, I suppose, of the current uneasy state of race relations.

Where Rasheeda, a New Group production, holds an advantage was in its high-grade production values, which included the casting of the award-winning actresses Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest. 

Office Politics, which was funded in part by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, has more limited resources but it does a surprising amount with the little it has.

Most of its seven-member cast have worked primarily in regional theater but they all, under the straight-ahead direction of Aimee Todoroff, do fine work, particularly Philip Guerette, whose naturally honest affect reminded me of a younger Thomas Sadowski.

The real standout, though, is set designer Sandy Yalkin, who found all sorts of clever ways to transform the small stage into various locales at the office and at a retreat where the co-workers go in a futile attempt to resolve their differences. 

Yalkin's ingenuity made me smile. In fact, the choices she made—and those of the committed actors—made me think that I should explore more of what the city's myriad small theaters have to offer.

June 13, 2015

"Why "10 out of 12" Didn't Score With Me

Anne Washburn clearly loves the theater. Her 2013 play Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play was an ode to theater's power to crate order out of chaos. I'll confess that I was lukewarm about it (click here to read my review) but most critics and theater insiders loved it. And anticipation has been so high for her new work 10 out of 12, which opened at Soho Rep this week, that people start queuing up for the cancellation line 90 minutes before the show begins.

The title is taken from the Actors’ Equity rule that limits actors to working no more than 10 hours in a 12-hour period. And the play takes place during a technical rehearsal a few days before a new show is scheduled to open. 

Tech, as it’s called, is the notoriously tedious time when the cast and the crew nail down sound and lighting cues. Washburn, the author of a dozen plays that have been produced across the country, spent the lulls in her tech time taking notes and she and her frequent collaborator director Les Waters have turned them into this meta narrative that attempts to recreate the tech experience (click here to read a Q&A on how they did it).

The verisimilitude is taken seriously. Each audience member is given a head set, over which nearly a quarter of the dialog is spoken as the faux crew communicate with one another just as real ones do. It’s fun at first but a lot of what’s said is, as those communications can be, banal: arcane directions are repeated over and over; people describe what they’re having for lunch.

In the same vein, the actors playing the crew members move in and out of the audience, just as their real-life counterparts would when working on a show. And when they move props, including an unfinished wall, around the stage, it’s impossible to tell the real stagehands from the pretend ones.

I usually take it as a good sign whenever I see that a show has cast Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who here plays the stage manager. And, as always, she’s great, right down to the bearing-the-weight-of-the-world slump of her shoulders. 

The other actors are just as good. But it was hard to know if those of us watcing were supposed to turn around and look at them as they moved out of the traditional playing space. And so much of the time, they were just disembodied voices for me.

The show they’re supposedly working on seems to be a hapless mashup of an antebellum melodrama (complete with actresses in hoop skirts) and a modern-day ghost story (glow in the dark skeletal figures make frequent appearances).

The play-within-a-play’s cast includes an anxious ingénue, a Hollywood hunk looking for some stage cred and a cranky method actor who gets on everyone's nerves by improvising his lines and making grandiloquent declarations about the theater that I couldn’t tell if Washburn wanted me to laugh at or take seriously.

Either way, the tech rehearsal’s stop-and-go conceit saps the momentum out of that storyline. It also pales in comparison to An Octoroon, another meta meditation on theater that played in the same space last spring (click here for my review of that one).

Some of the mainstream critics have found 10 out of 12 to be an amusing recreation of the tech experience but the show reminded me of one of those old Andy Warhol films in which a subject like boredom was conveyed by being as boring as hell. 

I get that Washburn wants to celebrate the love that everyone from the lowliest stagehand to the blowhardiest headliner has for the theater. I just wish she had gotten to that point in a less tiresome way. And the oddly cathartic final scene of 10 out of 12 doesn't make up for the two hours and 15 minutes that preceded it.

The audience the night before the show opened was filled with family and friends of people involved in the show (including Lisa Kron, still beaming from her Tony win for Fun Home, and her wife the equally gifted playwright Madeline George) but even that supportive group gave only token applause when the show broke for intermission.

The reviews (click here to read some of them) suggest that this may be a show that insiders who have gone through tech rehearsals will like in the way that people who’ve suffered through an ordeal enjoy getting together to pat themselves on the back for having survived it. But I think 10 out of 12 is going to leave regular theatergoers wondering what the fuss is all about.

Still, I would love to have seen the real tech rehearsals for this show. Or maybe not.

June 10, 2015

"An Act of God" is Just a Small Blessing

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the number of non-believers—atheists, agnostics, people who check the “none of the above” box when asked about their religious affiliation—is on the rise in the U.S. So I don’t know what to make of the recent spate of plays that have wrestled, in one way or another, with faith.

Over the last few seasons, we’ve had Grand Concourse, a drama whose main character is a nun afraid she’s lost her calling; the short-lived musicals Leap of Faith and Scandalous, about mid-century evangelists, and even The Book of Mormon, which, despite its anarchic sensibility, ultimately endorses the power of belief. 

Coming to Playwrights Horizons in the fall is The Christians, a much anticipated work that centers on the pastor of a megachurch. And onstage right now are Robert Askins’ hilarious and yet moving puppet ministry play Hand to God and An Act of God, the first show of this new Broadway season, which is running at Studio 54 only through Aug. 2.

God (who gets his own bio in the Playbill) is the main character in An Act of God and the play’s conceit is that the Divine Being has assumed the body of the popular TV actor Jim Parsons in order to present an update of the Ten Commandments.

The script is by David Javerbaum, the former head writer and executive producer of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Which should give you some idea of the show’s irreverent and decidedly left-leaning tone (this deity believes firmly in the separation of church and state and gay marriage). But Javerbaum also tucks in some valid theological questions about why God allows suffering and death (click here to read more about the genesis of the show).

It also helps that God is played by Parsons, wearing a slapdash toga over jeans and red sneakers. He's so personally endearing that all but the most devout believers will be willing to discount the play’s bodacious blasphemy, although I did see two couples walk out during the performance my friend Jessie and I attended.

The jokes (sample: God really did create Adam and Steve before adding Eve) aren’t actually all that original or sinful but the production, directed by Joe Mantello, is engaging, getting lots of mileage out of Scott Pask’s elegant set and some smart video projections by Peter Nigrini and special effects by Gregory Meeh.

Christopher Fitzgerald and Tim Kazurinsky also do their part in the supporting roles of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. But this is basically a one-man show and Parsons, in comfortable command onstage and a master of droll delivery, confirms his status as a comedy god.

June 6, 2015

Hi's and Lo's of Four Tony-Nominated Shows

Once again, Tony time has rolled around before I’ve had a chance to sound off on all the shows that are in contention for the big prizes. And as anyone who pays even the slightest attention to the awards knows, there are more tight races in more categories than there have been in years. Maybe ever. Which should make for a great show tomorrow night, even if they do have to squeeze in the awards giving between 11 production numbers from all the musical nominees, plus a few shows that originally got no Tony love, including Harvey Weinstein’s Finding Neverland. In the meantime, I’m going to resort to one of my quick highlights and lowlights summaries on the four big shows I haven’t reviewed:

THE AUDIENCE. Peter Morgan obviously gets a kick out of turning recent British history into drama and one of his favorite subjects is Queen Elizabeth II. He wrote the screenplay for the 2006 movie “The Queen,” is working on a Netflix series about the royal family called “The Crown” and in between has written this stage play about the private weekly audiences the queen has held with the 11 prime minsters who have served under her.

Highlight:  As in the movie, Her Highness is played by Dame Helen Mirren, who not only portrays the queen at all ages, from her ascension to the throne at just 25 to her present position as the world’s oldest reigning monarch at 89, but she makes the transitions right onstage in front of the audience.

Lowlight: The show is more of a pageant than a real play and some of its impact may be lost for folks who haven’t kept up with British history and can’t tell Harold Macmillan from Harold Wilson.
Tony Spotlight: The focus is, appropriately, on Dame Helen, who’s the frontrunner for Best Actress in a Play. But there’s also a chance that the voters may recognize Richard McCabe, who plays the queen’s favorite minister Harold Wilson, whose story is the only one the plays fleshes out a bit. Or that they’ll reward costume designer Bob Crowley (up for four awards this year) for his spot-on recreations of Elizabeth’s looks through the decades.

THE KIND AND I:  Everyone loves this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical about a British widow who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam and the changes her presence brings about in the royal court—and within the sovereign as well, which is why the show has been revived four times since the original production ended its three-year run in 1954.

Highlight: Once again, Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony for his direction of the 2008 production of South Pacific, has created a feast for the eyes and ears, sparing no expense, including having a cast of nearly 50.

Lowlight: Despite the fact that the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe has gotten a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of the king (and is sexy as hell) his English is difficult to understand and that threw the production off for me.

Tony Spotlight:  Kelli O’Hara has picked up her sixth Tony nomination for playing the widow Anna Leonowens and she looks so lovely in Catherine Zuber’s gowns and sounds so wonderful singing such R&H favorites as “Hello, Young Lovers” that she should be a shoo-in for Best Actress in a Musical. Except that Kristin Chenoweth, who studied with the same teacher back in their mutual alma mater, is equally terrific in On the Twentieth Century, making this one of the evening’s most anticipated showdowns. But lots of pundits feel that the path to the podium may be easier for Ruthie Ann Miles, who finds quiet dignity in the featured role of the king’s chief wife Lady Thiang, and for the show itself, which seems to have a slight edge in the race for Best Revival of a Musical.

THE VISIT. This is the third new show by John Kander and Fred Ebb to open on Broadway since Ebb died in 2004 and it’s probably the last. Based on a play by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, it tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest—and most vengeful—woman, who returns to her poor hometown and promises to give everyone there enough money to satisfy all their needs if they will kill the man who once jilted her.

Highlight: Claire is played by Chita Rivera, a longtime collaborator with Kander and Ebb and book writer Terrence McNally and, at 82, a must-see theatrical legend in her own right.

Lowlight:  Director John Doyle’s staging is dreary and, with the exception of one dance between Chita and an actress playing the spirit of the younger Claire, emotionless.

Tony Spotlight: The show is up for five Tonys but, unless a large number of the voters are overcome by sentimentality (the last chance to salute Kander &Ebb; maybe the last chance to reward Chita) everyone involved in this show is going home empty-handed.

WOLF HALL. Novelist Hilary Mantel made the 16th century powerbroker Thomas Cromwell the central figure in her two Booker prize-winners about Henry VIII’s quest for a son, which lead to England’s break with the Catholic Church, shifting alliances across Europe and the brutal casting off of Henry’s first two wives, one of whom literally lost her head. Now playwright Mike Poulton has turned all of this into a two-part extravaganza for the stage.

Highlight: The chance to see some two dozen members of the Royal Shakespeare Company do their thing as they swirl around the stage in sumptuous costumes by Paule Constable.

Lowlight: People who aren’t history buffs may find it hard to follow all the court intrigue, a task made even more difficult by the fact that so many of the main characters are named Thomas and so many of the actors play multiple roles. People who are history buffs are unlikely to find anything new in this retelling of an oft-told tale and so may be a bit bored.

Tony Spotlight: The show is up for eight Tonys, including for Best Play, for Ben Miles’ performance as Cromwell and for those costumes. But, for my money, the most deserving nomination is for Nathaniel Parker who brings such brio to the role of the impetuous Henry that you can feel the energy surge when he’s onstage and the lack of it when he’s off.

So there you have it. As I said, it promises to be a nail-biter of an evening. So good luck with your Tony pool. And if you’re looking for a little extra info to give you an edge, you might want to check out the articles I’ve been collecting (including the one about Kelli and Kristin's mentor) in the Tony Talk magazine I’ve posted on the Flipboard site and which you can find by clicking here.

June 3, 2015

"Cagney" Lacks the Moxie of its Namesake

As the story goes, a drama school teacher once told Robert Creighton that he reminded him of the old movie actor James Cagney. And indeed, Creighton does resemble Cagney and radiates the same irrepressible likeability that first made Cagney a star in the 1930s.

Which explains why Creighton, a journeyman actor who made his Broadway debut back in 1996, has spent years developing a show about Cagney, who broke into movies playing tough-guy mobsters but won the Oscar for his portrayal of the song-and-dance man James M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” 

The result is Cagney, the musical that is now playing at The York Theatre Company though June 21, but which, alas, is no where near as captivating as its namesake or its hardworking star, who also co-wrote the music and lyrics to some of its songs.

In many ways, Cagney reminds me of the short-lived Chaplin, another bio-musical that had a charismatic performer at its center (Rob McClure in Chaplin’s case) but no real story to surround him. And as they say in the jewelry business, a gem needs a great setting to really show off its brilliance. 

From the looks of it, Cagney must have started off as a musical tribute to its namesake because the best parts of the show are the recreations of the numbers that Cagney performed in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

The new songs also suffer in comparison to Cohan’s grand ole tunes which enlivened the biopic about him and give what life there is to this musical about the guy who played him.

Joshua Bergasse, a nominee for his choreography for the revival of On the Town, has whipped up some rousing routines to those songs and he’s found some terrific dancers to perform them, including Creighton who has perfected Cagney’s trademark stiff-legged gait.

But the show, directed by Bill Castellino, slows to a crawl in its book scenes, written by Peter Colley, whose previous work seems to have been produced mainly in Canada. 

A framing device opens and closes the show with Cagney’s appearance at an awards ceremony where he’s being given a Life Achievement Award but Cagney is basically just one scene in Cagney’s life after another.

There’s no theme that ties them together. An attempt is made to create some tension by amping up the clashes between the star and his studio head Jack Warner over which movies Cagney should make. But that doesn’t add up to much and there’s no compelling reason presented for us to care about any of it.

What makes all of this worse is the fact that Creighton so obviously does care (click here to read about his long journey with the show) and not just about his own chance to finally bask in the spotlight but about what making sure that people remember what a powerhouse Cagney was.

He probably would have done better if he’d dispensed with the book altogether and just did the song-and-dance tribute to his idol which is clearly where his heart—and this show's—lies.