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The Westside Theatre, NYC, April 20, 2016

Review by Marilyn Lester for Cabaret Scenes

Cagney-Cabaret-Scenes-Magzine_212If Hollywood Golden Age actor James Cagney had had a secret grandson, he would most certainly be Robert Creighton, who portrays the icon in the dramatic musical Cagney. Creighton, who bears a resemblance in looks and build to the original, is— like Cagney— a triple-threat performer who’s created the perfect vehicle for himself. Supported by five fellow actors who play a variety of roles, Cagney is a flat-out crowd-pleaser with an engaging, likeable Creighton at the helm. It is pure and simple terrific, bright, energetic entertainment.

The creative team behind the musical is book writer Peter Colley, with music and lyrics by Christopher McGovern, along with three by Creighton. The songs serve the action well, advancing the plot brightly, even if they don’t venture into any groundbreaking musical territory.

The creators have taken a safe path in recounting Cagney’s life. But that’s perfectly OK; biographies on stage are notoriously tricky to mount successfully. Portraying the famous and well-known is often precarious. When actor Jeremy Benton appears as Bob Hope, for instance, there’s not the slightest resemblance to the man, requiring a large suspension of disbelief. If the actors play authentically and the vehicle is well done, as is the case with Cagney, the audience will go along without complaint. Fortunately, this show, which began life in 2009, has been worked to a comfortable level of enjoyment. The historical accuracy isn’t 100 percent, but it’s on target enough—and Creighton is a fierce little dynamo who has the talent and the look to make his portrayal an outstanding homage. He has his Cagney down to a faultless “t.”

The diminutive James Cagney (he was 5-foot 5-inches tall) was born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1899, one of seven children, most of whom made good. Danette Holden plays the determined Ma Cagney, complete with “stage Irish” accent, with Josh Walden as likeable brother Bill Cagney. James Cagney was innately intelligent, multi-talented and driven from the start: he began taking tap dancing lessons as a very young child. Through grit and good timing he made his mark in vaudeville and on the New York stage; he also had his sights set early on Hollywood and film. All of this is lightly touched upon, with musical numbers such as “There’s Nothing I Won’t Do for You,” “Some Other Guy,” and “81st Street Rag” supporting the “Cagney Light” version of the musical. “Falling in Love” is a winsome number sung with Willie Cagney, sweetly portrayed by Ellen Zolezzi, as the woman Cagney remained married to for his entire life. There are a few through-themes in the show, and they work well. One is the play on words of the song “Black and White,” which opens both acts. Another is the device of bookending the story with a 1978 event: James Cagney’s SAG Lifetime Achievement Award presented to the actor by his Warner Brothers boss and sometime nemesis, studio chief Jack Warner.

Bruce Sabath, who plays Warner, nips hard at Creighton’s heels as a scene-stealer. Sabath’s portrayal of the crafty, often mean-spirited Hollywood businessman provides sheer enjoyment and juicy laughs.

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He goes over the top frequently with Warner’s villainous ways, but it’s absolute delight when he does. Bits of business with Jane, Warner’s long-suffering secretary (played to the comic hilt by Holden) are clichéd, but are also gut-bustlingly funny.

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When Sabath comes on in Act Two as a sailor asking a favor of Cagney, he’s almost unrecognizable as the same actor. That’s skill —and Sabath has plenty of it. All of the actors (except Creighton) double in Cagney, and to affect that, the costume changes are fast and furious. Martha Bromelmeir has done a superb job of design, with one exception—she absolutely needs to find a new wig-maker.

The dramatic tension in the musical is minimal—the height of it being Cagney’s summons before The House Un-American Activities Committee concerning possible communist ties. But the mild drama is quickly dismissed; the plot point is really there to showcase Cagney’s good-guy side as a concerned, wide-ranging philanthropist. The Act Two song “How Will I Be Remembered?” captures the main theme of the musical: the actor’s frustration of being typecast as Hollywood’s number one tough guy. Cagney won an Oscar for his portrayal of George M. Cohan, a legendary composer, entertainer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and producer. Yet, his stellar performances in movies such as Public Enemy and White Heat sealed the deal of his fame and success. He knew he had more to give, but the public and Jack Warner just wouldn’t allow it. Act Two’s “USO Medley” is a patriotic spin through much of the Cohan material, including the iconic “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s work shines especially bright in this segment, with the cast delightfully tapping their hearts and souls out with excellence.

Cagney has been smartly directed by Bill Castellino, who keeps the action moving forward at a steady clip. Set design is by the extremely talented James Morgan, who created a set-piece, old-time movie theater ambience. Lighting by Michael Gilliam and projections by Mark Pirolo add context and texture. Sound was problematic: Janie Bullard’s mic-ing was awkward and the sound quality uneven.

The producers of Cagney chose wisely in the Westside Theatre. It’s the perfect venue for this compact and intimate show. The production allows Creighton and the others to create an engaging, happy-making good time.

Marilyn Lester

Marilyn Lester left journalism and commercial writing behind nearly two decades ago to write plays. That branch in the road led to screenwriting, script-doctoring, dramaturgy and producing for the stage. Marilyn has also co-authored, as well as edited, books. It seemed the only world of words she hadn’t conquered was criticism, an opportunity that presented itself via Theater Pizzazz. Marilyn has since sought to widen her scope in this form of writing she especially relishes. Marilyn is a member of the Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild, Women in the Arts and Media and The League of Professional Theater Women.