Performing Arts: Theater
May 22, 2016
He’s short, stocky and full of vinegar. The tough guy song and dance man James Cagney is reincarnated in the body of Robert Creighton. A hard-bitten Irish guy who liked to clown around and tap dance inadvertently becomes America’s screen star. Raised on the mean streets of Manhattan, where punches serve as words, he excelled as an amateur boxer. An educated man—graduating from Columbia—Cagney held many odd jobs until the oddest job of all popped up impersonating a woman in revue.

In this tightly shaped musical, Cagney banters with his mother (sharp witted Danette Holden—doubles as Jack Warner’s secretary) and his brother Bill (Josh Walden). Times are hard, and money is scarce. With the father dead, Cagney functions as the major breadwinner. Warner’s secretary Jane (Danette Holden). Ma Cagney (Holden) Bob Hop (Jeremy Benton) Cagney’s wife Willie (Ellen Zolezz) brother, Bill (Josh Walden).

Serendipitously, Cagney hears about an audition that launches his career as a comedienne and song & dance man. Multi-talented, Cagney also enjoyed a photographic memory and served as a staunch advocate of unions. Both this traits got him in and out of tons of trouble with authority figures.

After many failures at breaking into the film business, Cagney caught the attention of film executives who caught newspaper notices of his tough guy success in a NY show “Outside Looking In.” Desperate for new blood in the burgeoning gangster movie business, Warner Bros. chief, Jack Warner (skanky Bruce Sabath) -- Cagney’s life long nemesis—ferries him out to California. According to the show, that’s the start of Cagney’s budding career as America’s “Tough Guy;” in large part because of his knowledge of authentic street fighting and boxing.

Creighton’s body language speaks “Cagney” with his shoulders tight, legs slightly bent, and hands always twitching to snap into fists. Many of the scenes physically fling Cagney into walls, over chairs and through windows. Always devoted to his mother and wife “Willie” (Ellen Zolezz), they are the only ones who touch his softer side. Otherwise, he’s in constant battle with Warner over his contracts, paying reasonable wages to his crew and cast members and fighting charges of Communist ties.

But the fighting stops when he wins the role George M. Cohan in one of the finest American film musicals ever made “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” That’s when Creighton gets to strut his taps, punching the ground with staccato rhythms (Savion Glover probably took a few notes from the film performance) strutting around in stiff-legged prances and balling out “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Solid, red haired and high-strung, Creighton captures Cagney’s resilience, athleticism and heart. The score includes 18 original songs, but the ones with the most punch are still the standards: “Mary,” “Harrington,” “You’re a Grand Ole’ Flag,” “Over There,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

In a turn worthy of the original Cagney, Robert Creighton wrote the music and lyrics for "Cagney" along with Christopher Mc Govern, and then cast himself in the lead role. Spryly directed by Bill Castellino, "Cagney" rises on Joshua Bergasse’s wonderfully snappy choreography and Matt Perri’s upbeat musical direction. The book is by Peter Colley while Martha Bromeimeier is responsible for the era costumes brightened by lighting designer Michael Gilliam at the Westside Theatre Upstairs.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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