Cagney the Musical Starring Robert Creighton at Westside Theater Through May 28 - Will's New York Nite Life
Cagney the Musical Starring Robert Creighton at Westside Theater Through May 28
407 West 43rd St.
New York City
Performances Through May 28
To the extent that most people remember George M. Cohan, they know him through James Cagney’s portrayal of the legendary song-and-dance man in the 1942 movie biography “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; Cagney so disappeared into the role of Cohan that it has become difficult for future generations to tell where one ended and the other began. Seventy-five years later, it’s easy to imagine the same thing happening to Cagney himself; Robert Creighton becomes so subsumed by the role, especially if this show should go on to become a film or a full-fledged Broadway musical, that our memories of Cagney will become bound up in Mr. Creighton. Even by the first scene, we forget we’re watching Mr. Creighton and not Cagney himself: he doesn’t just look like the great actor-hoofer, he moves, dances, sings and, apparently even thinks like Cagney. It’s not a matter of “acting” like Cagney so much as reacting like him, even in his facial expressions while the other characters are saying their lines.
Just as singer Klea Blackhurst announces herself as being “genetically predisposed” to playing Ethel Merman, Mr. Creighton seems born to inhabit the career and the canon of Cagney. In virtually all of his shows up to now, including “Anything Goes” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” on Broadway and “Little Me” and “Paint Your Wagon” (at City Center Encores!), Mr. Creighton has played the second banana, the wacky lovable best friend (word around the street is that he’ll play a similar role in the upcoming stage adaptation of the Disney blockbuster “Frozen”). This is his major shot at being a leading man, and, in the words of “Hamilton,” he’s not throwing away his shot. Like Cagney himself, Creighton (who also helped conceive the show and is coauthor of the music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern) is a commanding stage presence – and is rarely offstage for more than a few minutes.
The show itself is a study biographical framework, detailing Cagney’s rise to fame, his constant sparring with mogul Jack Warner (played as a charming reprobate by Bruce Sabath) and various red-baiting senate committees who viewed the actor’s efforts to “help the little guy” with suspicion, and his late career tribulations. Mr. Creighton and Mr. McGovern’s often excellent original songs (especially the delightful “Falling in Love”) are artfully blended with vintage tunes from the Cagney-Cohan catalogue. Even so, this is the only musical in which the big “11 O’Clock number,” depicting Cagney in his 1949 masterpiece “White Heat,” is not a dancing spectacle but a scene in which a homicidal maniac blows up a chemical plant, shouting “Top o’ the world to ya, Ma!” Thank goodness they didn’t try to make a song out of that.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL & VANITY FAIR, and reviews current shows for THE OBSERVER and THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of eight books including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)