Off-Broadway Review: “Cagney” Taps at the Heart at the Westside Theatre – Upstairs

April 6, 2016 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Review: “Cagney” Taps at the Heart at the Westside Theatre - Upstairs (On Sale through September 25, 2016)
Book by Peter Colley
Music and Lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern
Arrangements by Christopher McGovern
Directed by Bill Castellino
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Cagney, you’re playing the lead now. Got to carry the picture. Don’t screw it up. Now get back on set. Oh, and Cagney – give me more of that grapefruit stuff!” (Jack Warner in “Cagney”)

Although “Cagney” has been playing since 2009 and has ostensibly been updated, expanded, and revised, the musical still needs some tweaking to bring it to its next and highest level. The cast is uniformly brilliant: what a collection of Broadway triple-threat actors! The problem might be that the five performers are simply working too hard. Each is required to play a variety (and quite a variety it is) of other characters. Despite this, these five hard-working actors deliver strong performances in this musical that pays tribute to James Cagney and the indomitable spirit of the Nation he loved unconditionally.

The musical is set backstage at the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Lifetime Achievement Awards in 1978 hosted by Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath). “Cagney” traces the actor’s life and career in a series of flashbacks that occur in James Cagney’s mind. These include Cagney’s (Robert Creighton) early days on the streets of New York where he struggled to support Ma Cagney (Danette Holden) and his younger brother Bill (Josh Walden); his stint on the vaudeville circuit; his meteoric rise to fame in Hollywood; his appearance before the Dies Committee in Washington. D.C.; his appearance at a USO show; and on sound stages in Hollywood.

Robert Creighton is simply splendid as James Cagney. It is not just that he looks like the iconic actor: Mr. Creighton embodies Cagney in a purely distilled form that oozes authenticity and honesty. His music and lyrics – as well as those of Christopher McGovern – chronicle Cagney’s fascinating story with integrity. Although the music is stronger than the lyrics, the lyrics remain serviceable and ring with honesty. Jeremy Benton is an engaging Bob Hope. Danette Holden’s Ma Cagney is appropriately tough with her love; her Jane (Warner’s Assistant) – through no fault of her own – is more a cartoon than a character. The audience sees more of Jack Warner than James Cagney and Bruce Sabath embodies the stingy curmudgeon with a steely core. Unfortunately, as is the case with Jane, the book and direction give the character an unfortunate cartoonish veneer, a choice this critic simply cannot understand.

Josh Walden and Ellen Zolezzi deliver strong performances as Cagney’s wife and brother respectively. Again, their requirement to play so many additional roles keeps them from developing their individual characters as deeply as they are capable of doing. Both are superb singers and dancers as well, and they – and the rest of the cast – are capable of more intricate and inventive choreography than provided by veteran Joshua Bergasse whose somewhat pedestrian choreography here becomes repetitive and bromidic.

Now to the creative team: you are all “playing the lead now” and on a new journey with an open run playing to houses of appreciative patrons. Time to get back around the table and give those devotees “more of that grapefruit stuff.” Add a small ensemble cast that can play all of the minor roles so the principals can dig deeper into their main character roles. The audience, for example, does not need to see the talented Jeremy Benton playing Bob Hope and a camera man. Develop a better book. Director Bill Castellino does what he can with Peter Colley’s tepid book that totters between a bio-musical and musical comedy. And hire a wig and hair designer: the actors deserve professionally designed and maintained wigs that will not make them seem like caricatures.

In its present form, “Cagney” is highly entertaining and well worth a trip to the iconic Westside Theatre. The cast’s performances of George M. Cohan’s “Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” not only bring down the house; they also link the two Irish song-and-dance-men in a matrix of wonder that serves as a fitting surcease to the contemporary malaise of a nation – and a world – that struggles to know how they “will be remembered.”