One would not ordinarily associate disco with tough guys, but the only song that came to mind after I left the Westside Theater recently was Donna Summer’s signature hit, “She Works Hard For the Money.” Swap the pronoun “They” for “She” and apply it to the hugely talented cast of Cagney, the new musical that has reopened to a slightly larger scale than its last incarnation at the York theatre.
Cagney is the biographical story of James Cagney (Robert Creighton), the Irish-American actor born on the Lower East Side who grew to prominence, first in the vaudeville circuit and later in Hollywood. Cagney worked under Jack Warner’s (Bruce Sabath) reign where he made a slew of films, all of which pigeon holed him as a gangster. Eventually Cagney grew tired of the parts, feeling moved instead to benevolently change the world with his craft. That inspiration led him to depart from Warner Brothers studio and begin his own movie company. The result was a failure and caused Cagney to go crawling back to his cinematic roots.
Creighton, who also wrote the book and lyrics along with Christopher McGovern and bookwriter Peter Colley, is a marvel. His energy and timing is unflagging and audiences will no doubt be cheering him several times before the curtain falls. Joshua Bergasse should also take a bow for his high energy choreography and Bill Castellino can join him for the show’s lean direction.
A minor handicap that Cagney possesses is its length and lack of dramatic tension. Act one moves along at decent clip, but one feels the momentum decelerate in the second act. If it were to clock in at the now typical theater block of 90 minutes, it would feel much tighter and more substantial. Cagney’s rise from rags to riches is interesting, but aside from his spats with Jack Warner, alleged communist involvement ,and an internal struggle to produce works of meaning, his life- at least depicted in Creighton’s account- was relatively free from drama. He was even married to the same woman, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi) his entire life; a shocking statistic by today’s marital standards.
Nonetheless, Cagney is a bonafide crowd pleaser and although this cast is working earnestly for their paychecks, they are doing it in such an effortless manner with good ‘ole Yankee Doodle flair.
Cagney runs Off Broadway at the Westside Theatre (W. 43rd between 9th and 10th). For tickets and information visit the box office or click here.