Saturday, November 19, 2016

Energizing CAGNEY lights up the stage with song and dance

Born on July 17,1899, not on the Fourth of July, James Francis Cagney, Jr., better known to the public as Jimmy Cagney, was, in fact, a Yankee Doodle Dandy.  A product of the lower east side of Manhattan, he was of Irish decent, a tough kid who learned his boxing, tap dancing and acting skills on the streets.  Noted for his distinct vocal style, short stature, and penguin-like walk, his “bad guy/gangster” performances in such films as “White Heat” earned him much fame, probably capped off when he shoved a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face in “The Public Enemy.”  The action was supposedly ad-libbed by Cagney.

He went on to win an Academy Award as Best Actor for “Angels with Dirty Faces.”  This was followed by an Oscar for his portrayal of George M. Cohan “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

His career in show business started when he appeared as woman in a song and dance comedy skit in “Every Sailor.”  This followed years in vaudeville as a dancer and comedian. 

He spent much of his early film life as a $500-a-week contract actor at Warner Brothers.  Those years highlighted by many clashes with Jack Warner, the company’s leader, over his efforts regarding unionization for better working conditions and pay for performers. 

A bio-musical, CAGNEY is now running off-Broadway.  As in most musicals based on the lives of famous people, such as FUNNY GIRL (Fanny Brice), GYPSY (Gypsy Rose Lee) and FIORELLO (Fiorello LaGuardia), dramatic liberties are taken that make the “real story” more entertaining.

Blending together Cagney’s life with the songs identified with the actor, such as “Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (words and music by George M. Cohan), and those that tell his personal story, “Black and White,” “Mean,” “81st Street Rag,” “Tough Guy,” and “Some Other Guy,” the score, which features music and lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern, is tune-filled and of high energy. 

The book by Peter Colley has some soap opera moments, but, due to the dynamics of the performances and the creative staging by director Bill Castellino, and Joshua Bergasse’s equally inventive choreography, the over-all effect is exciting and energizing.

Robert Creighton, yes, the same guy who co-wrote the music and lyrics, was born to play Cagney.  Of the same physical build, high emotional level, and singing and dance skills, Creighton doesn’t portray Cagney, he is Cagney.  

Creighton is backup by a multi-talented cast, all of whom play multi-roles.  His mother, brother, Jack Warner, Bob Hope, and others, are all effectively created by Jeffry Denman, Danette Holden, Bruce Sabath, Josh Walden and Ellen Zolezzi. 

Martha Bromelmeier’s era-correct costume designs and James Morgan’s simple, but effective scenic designs, add to the effectiveness of the staging.

Capsule judgement:  CAGNEY is a high energy song and dance bio-musical that grabs and holds attention through infectious singing and dancing, and an award-winning performance by Robert Creighton.  The show has deservedly done so well at the box office that the original limited run has been extended and an additional weekly matinee has been added.  This is a show well-worth seeing.

Where:  Westside Theatre/Upstairs, 407 W. 43rd Street, between 9th and 10th
Previewed:  March 16, 2016, opened:  April 3, 2106, run through May 28, 2017
Matinees: Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday
Time:  2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission