Although several decades have passed since James Cagney’s peak atop Hollywood, his legacy is safe in the annals of time. Newer generations, however, who may have not been aware of how respected of an actor he was by his peers, or how well-versed he was in the art of tap dancing, are in for a rousing treat when they see “Cagney,” the musical, through October 29th, at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, CA.
This is the West Coast premiere of the musical, which is produced by Riki Kane Larimer, and written by Peter Colley, with music and lyrics by Christopher McGovern and Robert Creighton, the latter of whom also stars in the title role, joined by the original cast. The troupe began their journey Off-Broadway at the York Theatre, and then performed 502 times at the Westside Theatre in New York. Southern California residents will now have the opportunity to see the production, which details how Cagney developed his thick-skinned resilience and vaudevillian talents in New York City before forging a successful, albeit tumultuous, relationship with Jack Warner, of Warner Bros. Studios, in Hollywood.
Cagney and Warner’s partnership yielded 28 mostly memorable films, including “The Public Enemy,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “White Heat,” and more. They all virtually fit into the same action-drama genre, solidifying the no-nonsense, tough-guy persona of the star, who, while unremarkable in person, was larger than life on the big screen. Yet, Cagney, who is portrayed in uncanny fashion by his spitting image in Creighton, was a sensitive man with higher social-justice aspirations than the limiting creative outlet that was allotted to him. It is this struggle of reinvention, of butting heads with the powers-that-be, to fight for himself and the common man, and trying to make up for a misrepresented image in popular culture, that compellingly drives the stakes of “Cagney.”
The setting, or stage where this all transpires, is designed by James Morgan, and is purposely sparse, incorporating only some projections and furniture props, to allow the talents of the six stellar performers to shine in and of themselves without being overshadowed by an unnecessarily ornate setup. The direction by Bill Castellino and the choreography by Joshua Bergasse, moreover, enable the cast members to make the most of their space in a way that is tremendously impressive, yet intimately interactive.
At the forefront of the show is Robert Creighton, who, for his portrayal of Cagney, won the Fred Astaire Award for Outstanding Male Dancer Off-Broadway. Creighton is a tirelessly propulsive force, as he engagingly traces the trajectory of Cagney’s life, while adding his own purposeful nuances. Through him, we witness how Cagney tempered his disposition in the boxing gym, and continued to stand for worthwhile causes and for those who could not fend for themselves, even if the repercussions included being labeled a Communist. Nonetheless, Cagney, who helped found the Screen Actors Guild, never relented, and Creighton demonstrates this dogged determination in every note that he sings in numbers such as “Mean,” “How Will I Be Remembered?” and “Tough Guy.” Creighton is also a precise and passionate tap dancer, digging his heels and slapping the floor, with an infectious smile on his face, and even with facial expressions that denote comical intentions, as in during a friendly and memorable duel with Jeremy Benton’s Bob Hope (this preludes “The Seven Little Foys”).
Excluding Creighton, Benton and the rest of the cast inhabit many characters, changing from one costume to another, not to mention the (various) characterizations that go with each one. Benton, who is double-cast with Jeffry Denman, excels as the joking showman, Keith, of “Keith’s Music Theatre;” as a tap-dancing screenwriter, alongside three of his cast mates, in what amounts to a very interesting configuration of sight and harmonizing sound; as the soft-spoken Eddie Woods; and, of course, as the disarming Hope. It is in the latter role, though, that Benton is able to convey his amiability and charisma to the fullest extent, while at the same time expertly filling the tap shoes of one of the most celebrated entertainers of all time.
Cagney’s wife, whom he was married to for 64 years, up until his death in 1986, is played by the personable Ellen Z. Wright. As Willie, she resplendently symbolizes the feminine yin to Cagney’s masculine yang. The two lovebirds come together during a funny and tenderhearted scene/song – “Falling in Love” – when neither she nor Creighton’s Cagney can quite eke out the four-letter L-word that renders one so vulnerable and defenseless. Even when the spotlight is not on her, Wright is always in the moment, whether she is (as Willie) looking at her counterpart with lovingly adoring eyes, or as an ensemble member, who stands out, for instance, as a menacingly inquisitive congresswoman, clad in black wig and suit, during the insidious McCarthy era.
In addition, Josh Walden, who portrays a hardened foreman, a Hollywood director, Bill Cagney, etc., leaves a lasting impression as an outstanding dancer during ensemble dance numbers like “Grand Old Flag,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” earning every bead of sweat that accumulates on his brow. Particularly, Walden’s performance is notable for his impeccably timed steps during a tap-dancing solo, with cane in tow, where he doesn’t miss a single cue, hopping on one foot, and back-brushing with the other to the tune of raucous applause.
Similarly, Danette Holden is a joy to watch as Ma Cagney and Jane, Jack Warner’s smitten secretary. She is wholly committed to everything she does, bringing a heartwarming cogency and genuineness to her role as the steadfast and supportive mother, and as the doe-eyed, unnoticed assistant who thinks her boss is “A Work of Genius.” Her Jane is the perfect embodiment of both innocence and laugh-out-loud silliness, and by virtue of Holden’s terrific acting, we identify with the character and the crush she has on Warner. And, besides the different mannerisms and vocalizations she gives the two roles, Holden has an excellent singing voice (“Some Other Guy”), and is splendid as a soprano during ensemble harmonies.
The antagonist, or more appropriately, Cagney’s rival, and contentious business “partner,” is the powerful Jack Warner, depicted with captivating conviction by Bruce Sabath, who also exhibits his versatility by briefly portraying an awe-struck private. By all accounts, whereas others were complaisant in Warner’s presence, Cagney treated him like an equal, especially when the studio head wanted no opposition to being made happy. It’s therefore fascinating to witness Sabath’s performance in this light, as a pioneering industry mogul who sings with imperious self-assuredness during “Black and White,” to being all-too human, admitting 48 years into his relationship with Cagney that he respected “The Professional Againster” for essentially challenging him, and walking away when the situation called for it.
Perhaps this is why, amid spectacularly exuberant and blood-stirring tap-dancing, that “Cagney” also succeeds on its own content-based merits. Through it all, we see the vindication of a man in his final years, who learns to relinquish his regrets, guided by the wisdom of knowing that his onscreen legacy didn’t necessarily belong to him anymore, but rather to the cultural mass. For better or worse, his admirers have found their own meaning in his work even if factually incorrect (e.g., Cagney never actually said “You Dirty Rat!”). Nevertheless, Cagney, as we discern via Creighton’s intuitive performance, embraced the fact that his true self and his propagated image were not inextricably linked. He took solace in this realization, and that was enough for him.
For more information about “Cagney,” please visit CagneyTheMusical.com