A spirited musical journey through the life of one of the great Hollywood stars—and native New Yorkers—James Cagney.

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By Joel Benjamin


Peter Colley (book), Robert Creighton & Christopher McGovern (music & lyrics) have fashioned a lovely, yet tough-at-its-core, chamber musical about that whirlwind of an actor, singer, dancer and humanitarian, James Cagney. Cagney at the York Theatre Company is a joyous take on his life, from his tough New York adolescence as breadwinner for his family to his huge success in Hollywood. Throughout his life, this show makes abundantly clear, James Cagney was a mensch of the first order.

Theatrical versions of the lives of real people, particularly celebrities, tend to either deify or degrade their subjects. This show’s three creators tread a middle path that doesn’t shy away from the darkness of his abject poverty-stricken youth, the politics (in every sense of the word) of Hollywood, his long marriage, his pugilistic temperament, his occasional lapses in judgment and the liberal causes that stirred his generosity. Events are telescoped to fit into a sensible playing time. For instance, Cagney’s show business successes didn’t happen quite as quickly as in Mr. Colley’s libretto and the Cagney family was a good deal larger than just a mom and a brother. The gist of his life is communicated efficiently, though.

Framed by recurring scenes of Cagney’s SAG Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony in 1978 (the actual year was 1974) in which he meets up again with his nemesis, Jack Warner, the story flows in flashbacks. Jack Warner (a solid, multi-dimensional Bruce Sabath) is the catalytic agent in Cagney’s professional life, choosing his films and driving Cagney crazy. Warner gets the opening number, “Black and White” which wittily paints a portrait of vintage Hollywood. Warner’s songs, “A Work of Genius” and “Warner at Work” are simplified, but witty, looks at how films were created.

Cagney meets his future wife in the cast of a musical. Willie (a lovely, warm Ellen Zolezzi) gives in to his wooing “Crazy ‘Bout You.”

The score ranges from the simply entertaining like Willie’s vaudeville trio “There’s Nothing I Won’t Do For You” to Cagney’s poignant yearning “How Will I Be Remembered?” The numbers alternate storytelling like “The Dies Commission” about the Federal government’s accusations of Cagney’s leftist leanings and the “USO Medley” which shows Cagney and his good friend, Bob Hope (an easy-going Jeremy Benton) entertaining the World War Two troupes. Several George M. Cohan songs are thrown in to end each act, melded seamlessly with the creators’ originals, providing occasions for full company production numbers.

“Production number” may be a bit of an exaggeration since the entire cast consists of six hard-working actors, most of whom portray a number of characters. Those not mentioned above include Danette Holden who plays both Ma Cagney and Warner’s put-upon, but patient secretary, Jane with wit, charm and a command of each character’s idiosyncracies and Josh Walden, a fine dancer and singer who plays brother/manager Bill Cagney and a chorus boy with astonishing zest.

Robert Creighton, who looks uncannily like Cagney, portrays him as a totally human, totally likeable guy, never seduced by the lure of Hollywood glamour. He has all the mannerisms down pat without becoming a caricature. His dancing and singing are terrific. This isn’t a vanity production in any way, just a labor of love.

James Morgan’s clever set uses sliding panels upon which images designed by Mark Pirolo are projected. The panels vary the playing area which is otherwise filled with chairs, desks, theatrical trunks, etc. Amy Clark’s costumes are quite extravagant and colorful while Brian Nason’s lighting helped make the small York stage seem larger. Leah J. Loukas’s wigs helped define the characters.

Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is fresh, yet evocative of the period. Bill Castellino’s direction kept the show moving swiftly and clearly kept the actors on their toes as they raced from character to character.

*Photos: Carol Rosegg

Cagney – through June 21, 2015

The York Theatre Company/at Saint Peter’s (Entrance on 54th Street just East of Lexington Ave.) NYC

Tickets: 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission