Cagney: The Tap Dancing Tough Guy
I have never considered myself an old movie buff in the same way I think of myself as a theatre junkie. That being said, going into the entertaining and fun musical, Cagney this past weekend, I will admit I knew very little about this actor’s career and his political troubles with the communist-hunting Dies Committee in the late 1930’s. After seeing the show, I can see why Robert Creighton was so keen to create this story of what many, including Orson Welles called “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera”. It’s a captivating and highly fascinating story that spans his rise from a laborer to receiving a lifetime achievement SAG award in 1977.
Creighton obviously is energized by James Cagney, the famous movie star that he bares a great resemblance for, known for playing the tough guy in movies such as the classic 1931 gangster film, Public Enemy and the 1938 Angels with Dirty Faces which brought Cagney his first Oscar nomination. Creighton, with the help of Christopher McGovern, wrote the music and lyrics for Cagney, and from the moment he makes his entrance we can see why. It’s a perfect starring role for this talented actor, in many of the same ways James Cagney defined himself. Cagney was typecast as the tough Irish guy, but he was really deep down inside a song and tap dance man; an entertainer that Hollywood had a hard time letting him be. You could see the same being said of Creighton. Jack Warner, well played by the understudy Joel Newsome the night I saw it, was really the real tough guy in this story. These two had a combative relationship from the get-go and Cagney’s attempt to have more say in his career within the very controlling Warner Brothers studio system did not go over well. Warner kept pushing him into the criminal gangster roles, but it was really the Bob Hope (well played by Jeremy Benton) inspired musical comedies that Cagney enjoyed. Yankee Doodle Dandy being his finest of that lot and what got him an Oscar.
Directed with a professional attention to detail and foreword momentum, Bill Castellino does a fine job leading us through the many ups and downs of this man’s life, who began his career in 1919 dancing in a revue dressed as a woman. He advanced from vaudeville onto the Broadway stage in his breakthrough performance in the lead of the 1929 play Penny Arcade, which brought him to the movies and to the Warner Brothers lot. The rest, as you say, is legendary. It’s a well told although a bit too simplistic and straightforward in its telling.
The surrounding cast of Cagney do a fine job, playing almost too many roles to even try to list. It’s all done with a fun big-grinned revue style that generally works on the bare vaudevillian stage of the Westside Theatre Upstairs. Ellen Jolezzi does a great job of making it a bit more real and heartfelt when she plays Cagney’s wife, Willie. It gives it the warmth this story needs at the moment it needs it.
In terms of the storytelling, it’s a pretty standard issue traditional biography with a few successful new songs; a standout being “Black and White” and a number of well known classics from his career. The main draw here though is the tap dancing. Creighton and the cast are absolute pros when it comes to these old classic movie dance moments such as “USO Medley” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (superb choreography by Joshua Bergasse). The Bob Hope and James Cagney dance number, “Crazy ‘Bout You” is pure old school magic. Cagney himself would be very proud of the fact that when you walk out of Cagney, the story of his rise to fame, it is the tap dancing that you will remember, not his the tough guy roles. That is the charm of the piece and the heart of the story.
Cagney Credits: Book by Peter Colley; Music and lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern; Directed by Bill Castellino; Choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Cast: Robert Crieghton, Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Bruce Sabath (Joel Newsome understudy), Josh Walden and Ellen Zolezzi