We gave it a C-
A song-and-dance musical about James Cagney sounds like an inspired idea for a show; this is, after all, a man who won his Oscar for playing showman George M. Cohan in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. Conversely, it also sounds like a dismal idea for a show, since the Hollywood heavy’s career behind-the-scenes wasn’t terribly theatrical (he was married to the same woman for over 60 years and raised horses in his spare time). Plus, he’s still best known for screwy-headed bruiser roles like those in Angels With Dirty Faces and White Heat, and as Norman Mailer once told us: tough guys don’t dance.
Cagney, the York Theatre Company’s latest tuner, unfortunately falls squarely in the latter category—a slapdash, often egregiously under-researched look at a large swath of Jimmy C.’s acting career, mostly in the years under the thumb of crusty studio head Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath), who helped shepherd the reluctant, sensitive star into lore as one of Hollywood’s guns-and-gals noir reliables. We meet the young Cagney—played with admirable energy if not always palpable excitement by Robert Creighton, who also cowrote—as an Irish scrapper in NYC smarting from a blue-collar work dismissal. (How do we know his family’s Irish? Ma Cagney peels potatoes in the kitchen. Aye.) After a successful dance call where he gets to shine in the theater circuit, the diminutive, charismatic hoofer is summoned to Hollywood, and a star, as they say, is born.
And that’s more or less the trajectory of this underimagined piece, which smartly employed ace choreographer Joshua Bergasse (Smash, On the Town) to pad out the show with (admittedly appealing) tap numbers with Cagney and crew at various USO events and a few shoehorned bits with Cagney’s pal Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton, who reminds one not one iota of Hope). But the book is creakier than the plots of some of Cagney’s lesser movies, which were–on average–about an hour shorter than this production, which says precious little for all the time allotted. (He started his own production company? You don’t say!) And based on this telling, you’d think that Jack Warner had nothing better to do than twirl his villain moustache over Cagney’s career hiccups—in one ridiculous scene, he reads reviews aloud of the actor’s post-Warners financial flops (all made in different years, mind you—did he save them all up for this special occasion?) before eventually offering up the White Heat comeback role. It’s all too ironic given that’s exactly what the creators of this show might be doing, only without the redemption part for nearly anyone involved. C–