NEW YORK – Robert Creighton is giving a fine performance as the great film actor James Cagney in a musical bio that is appropriately titled “Cagney” at off-Broadway’s Westside Theater on West 43rd Street and 9th Avenue. Cagney was one of those rare Hollywood performers who were gifted with a dazzling protean acting talent.
In films, his first big mark was “The Public Enemy” (1931) that turned a tough gangster into a sympathetic bad guy. Cagney could also play comedy or recapture his early days as a vaudevillian dance man. On screen in 1941, he played another vaudevillian star, George M. Cohan, in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with such authentic prowess that he won a “Best Actor” Oscar.
Mr. Creighton has Cagney down pat. Physically, he matches him, with a medium height of 5’8,’’ a welter-weight build and red hair worn in a style Cagney probably would call a titan – slicked down the middle. He’s a good singer and a superlatively dapper tapper, especially in the show’s strenuous dance numbers inventively choreographed by Joshua Bergasse.
“Cagney” is a small off-Broadway show with an energetic cast of six. Besides Mr. Creighton there are five actors who play multiple roles – lots of wig and costume changes. All take part in the musical numbers. Mr. Creighton has written four songs for the show and one, “Falling in Love” is a very witty winner. There are other serviceable songs by Christopher McGovern.
The show’s big musical bonus comes in some great “Yankee Doodle Dandy” numbers by George M. Cohan like “Grand Old Flag” and “USO Medley.”
The book writer, Peter Colley, has chosen to set the show at a 1978 Screen Actors Guild gala honoring Cagney, who will be introduced by his old boss, Jack Warner, (Bruce Sabath) of Warner Bros. Pictures. This structure is conventional and can get tedious, but it does easily map out a chronicle of Cagney’s life and movie career.
Cagney was born in 1899 in New York, brought up in Yorkville, the poor Upper East Side section of Manhattan. His father was James Francis Cagney and mother was Carolyn Nelson. There were Irish origins on both sides. His father owned a saloon and died in the flu epidemic of 1918. The children had to find jobs in their teens. Mrs. Cagney was smart and she landed them jobs in places like the New York Public Library and the local Lenox Hill Settlement House.
Cagney’s older brother Harry belonged to the Lenox Drama Club and one day he became ill, so young James had to take his role in a play. This was Cagney’s introduction to acting. He loved it. He was a show-off. But Cagney wanted to get into vaudeville because he loved dancing and vaudeville had plenty of dancing. A kid at the settlement house taught him the complicated Peabody Dance. Cagney auditioned at Keith’s on 81st Street and got a chorus role in an act of all-authentic Navy men who were female impersonators. One of the guys was leaving and Cagney filled the vacancy, receiving the sum of $35 a week. Cagney learned dancing as a chorus girl.
He learned everything about dancing by doing and watching. For tap, “all we did was steal from each other, then modify a step to our individual styles,” he said. For his next job, he was hired as a specialty dancer. There, he met his wife Willard Vernon, so-named because her parents expected a boy. Cagney called her “Bill”; in the musical he calls her “Willie.” Cagney married her in 1922 and the marriage lasted a lifetime. Cagney and his wife spent years honing their craft at various showbiz and vaudeville jobs before they hit any success.
On Broadway with the actress Joan Blondell, Cagney starred in “Penny Arcade” and that sent him and his wife west to Hollywood and a movie deal. His contract was for four weeks and his career lasted decades. “The Public Enemy” was about street pals, one soft-spoken the other tough. Cagney was cast as the quiet guy. “The Public Enemy” was the movie in which he twisted a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face, a seminal moment that made Cagney immortal.
As an actor, Cagney was always unpredictable. He was an original. Audiences never knew what they were going to get.
For much of the production, Mr. Colley’s Cagney story is told as a lighthearted fable. When it moves onto his film business satire, it is less attractive. When Cagney arrived in Hollywood, his career was controlled by vicious and crafty producers who ruled the great film studios with their wills of iron. Mr. Warner was one of these producers until television arrived in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Suddenly, the film industry came crashing down on their heads. These moguls were no longer a force in the United States and the world beyond. Jack Warner represented it in a less portentous way, but we see how he treated and manipulated big stars like Cagney.
“Cagney,” flies as a dance show. After its red, white and blue finale celebrating George M. Cohan, with complicated step work, tapping and pirouetting galore, you believe what Cagney always said: He was a dance man at heart.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.