By Marcina Zaccaria


With a long career beginning right before the 1920s and extending until he gave a Screen Actors Guild speech in 1978, James Cagney worked in countless Warner Brothers films, bringing classic songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” to the American consciousness. Cagney, the musical, now running at The Westside Theatre, reminds us that in the heyday of black and white cinema, anything was possible.


James Cagney was raised to be an actor on 81st Street. There, he met his wife, Willy. They journeyed across the vaudeville circuit, before Cagney made his way to Warner Brothers lot. It’s a cleverly directed sequence of events, as Cagney navigates the surprises and pitfalls of the Studio System.


In this musical, with Bill Castellino’s direction, Cagney is a forceful presence. His Irish tough guy image is refreshing to Hollywood executives. Peter Colley, who wrote the book of the musical, carefully leads us from the writer’s room to the soundstage to the offices of the executives. Remarkable song and dance numbers – choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (On The Town, Gigi) – moves the story along from one compelling Hollywood power play after another, with James Cagney always firmly center stage.


The stocky Robert Creighton (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Anything Goes, The Lion King) is perfectly cast. Creighton actually bears a great resemblance to Cagney; his fine spirit is present in wit and bluster. Late in the second act, Cagney sheds his skin as the Tough Guy, who changed the look and tone of the motion pictures. We get a sense of his drive throughout the musical. Creighton isn’t afraid to show Cagney’s struggle against his image, as the shadow of himself threatens to obscure him.


Original music & lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern lead us through the musical. Actors Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Bruce Sabath, Josh Walden, and Ellen Zolezzi, play many roles and really pack a whallop. The original George M. Cohan music, including Give My Regards to Broadway, still looks and sounds great onstage. In fact, the musical, Cagney, which first premiered at The York Theatre Company, is a joy for people who love top-notch tap dancing.


In terms of design, black and white posters of Cagney’s movies line the stage. Lighting design by Michael Gilliam, with great use of contrast, bring us deeper into the world of the play. Period conscious costumes by Martha Bromelmeier include glittery red, white, and blue. With lots of large feathers; the bright colors honor the glory of the times and are not too grand for the moment.

When we seek inspiration (on the stage or the silver screen), people like Cagney shaped the times. They withstood political pressure, and rose to become dynamic producers. What’s missing in this musical interpretation of Cagney’s life is that incomparable bit of spark that made James Cagney so singular and exceptional. The orchestrations and the arrangements in Cagney, the musical, are sometimes bland and uninspired. Creighton’s performance was first-rate, and the book by Peter Colley is quite solid, but perhaps, with livelier music, the show would have had more unwavering appeal.


Cagney is running at the Westside Theatre, located at 407 West 43 Street. It has extended thru Sept. 25th.