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.

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