While most people view James Cagney as the prototypical hard-boiled gangster affiliated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, the musical that bears his name does yeoman’s work in painting this storied actor as far more multifaceted than that. Robert Creighton, who plays the title role, also cowrote the music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern.
Coupled with a book by Peter Colley, Cagney is a powerful mix of song and dance while hop-scotching through the actor’s life and revealing him to be a regular guy from the Lower East Side, who happened to be a gifted song-and-dance man with a nose for acting.
Housed within the intimate confines of the Westside Theatre’s upper level (which has is roughly 200-plus seats), Cagney is an intimate theatrical experience where props are effortlessly swapped on and off the stage for settings ranging from Hollywood sound stages and the site of the 1977 Screen Actors Guild Awards to a Hell’s Kitchen apartment and the Keith Music Theatre on W. 81st St.
In keeping with the cozy confines of this production, only six people make up the cast. While Creighton (who bears a remarkable resemblance to the late thespian) only plays the lead, his castmates do a stellar job juggling multiple roles. Bruce Sabath’s turn as tyrannical studio head Jack Warner winds up being the perfect villainous foil for Creighton’s everyman Cagney.
Equally impressive as the singing and music is the depth and complexity of the choreography, led by Jeremy Benton, whose Bob Hope is one of the many hats he dons. One segment in particular finds Benton and Creighton, having a dance-off that will delight anyone with even a slight appreciation of tap.
Ellen Zolezzi, who originated the role of Cagney’s wife Willie back in 2009, fits hand-in-glove with Creighton and Broadway star Danette Holden (Shrek the Musical) is also a revelation thanks to an impressive range that finds her going flawlessly from Ma Cagney to harried Warner assistant Jane.
Finally, Josh Walden equally shines via his turns as Cagney’s trusted brother Bill and a flamboyant movie director.
The pinnacle of the show comes during Cagney’s turn in Yankee Doodle Dandy, which finds the troupe tearing into a George M. Cohan medley and the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” finale. And while Cohan’s compositions make up roughly 30 percent of the evening’s music, what is all the more impressive is the fact that the remaining songs are Creighton/McGovern originals that seamlessly flow into these standards that date back a century plus. Cagney winds up being a throwback to Hollywood’s golden age movie musicals tied up in a delightfully small package.
Cagney is playing at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. in Manhattan. For more
information, visit www.cagneythemusical.com or call 212-239-6200.