As energetic and optimistic as its subject, this James Cagney bio-musical is fizzy fun with just enough seriousness to make it a satisfying tribute to the pugnacious movie star. The show is above all a vehicle for Robert Creighton, who physically resembles Cagney, and who – more importantly – shares Cagney’s charisma and fleeted-footed dancing ability.
Creighton also wrote a handful of songs in the show’s score, showing a gift for doing pastiches of corny 1920s vaudeville, the milieu where Cagney got his show-biz start. The remainder of the business-like score is mostly by Christopher McGovern. The climaxes of both acts are nearly century-old production numbers composed by George M. Cohan, who Cagney played in the 1941 movie musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Director Bill Castellino keeps the show moving at a sprightly clip. The creative team in general have made the smart decision to emphasize the singing and dancing hoofer Cagney over the silver screen tough guy. For one thing, that’s the way Cagney himself would have wanted it – he hated being typecast as a gangster – and for another, more singing and dancing is obviously going to make a more entertaining musical.
Which brings us to the choreography of Joshua Bergasse, which elevates the evening from fun to truly fabulous entertainment. Of course Cagney/Cohan-style tap dance “hoofing” is the order of the day, and the routines Bergasse gives the cast are truly riveting.
Sometimes I feel bookwriter Peter Colley setting up a scene for no other reason than requiring the character’s to tap dance – a cordial competition between Cagney and his friend Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton) springs to mind. But as long as the ensuing number is as exciting as these are, frankly I don’t give a damn. Recommended.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.