Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Immortalizing a Star in CAGNEY THE MUSICAL

The Cast of Cagney the Musical. Photos by Carol Rosegg from the NY production

When you think of James Cagney, one of two images comes to mind: the tough guy or the tapper. The public couldn’t get enough of his bad guy persona in films like The Public Enemy, G-Men, and White Heat but, for musical theatre lovers, nothing tops his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was a match made in heaven when he was cast in the role. Both were Irish entertainers who came up through Vaudeville and were proud to be Americans. Both stood up for their principles and helped those in need, even when it wasn’t fashionable.

Now, Cagney’s life and career are immortalized in a dynamic new bio-musical directed by Bill Castellino playing at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. The show has been in development for about the last 15 years and, in this current version, just concluded a successful 14-month run Off Broadway. It isn’t surprising. The painstaking work of writing and rewriting, and putting it up in front of different audiences in many places has resulted in a song-and-dance-packed traditional musical theatre production that is a fitting tribute to Cagney’s legacy.

In real life, Cagney was a man with a heart, and the tough guy image was not how he wanted to be remembered. Bookwriter Peter Colley gives us a surprising level of insight into his character as he chronicles Cagney’s (Robert Creighton) rise to fame, including his relationships with the tyrannical Jack Warner (an excellent Bruce Sabath), his brother Bill (Josh Walden), his mother (Danette Holden), and the woman who would eventually become his wife, Willie Vernon (Ellen Z. Wright). 

These scenes show us the heart of the man and they cover enough territory to give us an accurate picture but one in particular is a hard sell today. Shoving a grapefruit in a woman’s face for laughs in his breakout 1931 film The Public Enemy gave credence to the idea that it was okay for men to mistreat women, and it was a little disturbing to see it enacted in the musical given today’s prevalence of violence against women in the news. It is a pivotal part of Cagneys story and was handled as tastefully as it could be but I still cringed.

L-R: Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton

The joy of the show, and where it really becomes something special, is in its dazzling production numbers. The stylish dance scenes and extended tap choreography by Joshua Bergasse (particularly in the Cohan numbers and a duet for Creighton and Jeremy Benton who plays Bob Hope) are the pièce de résistance. Creighton is as charming as he is fast on his feet, a ball of energy with a lovable smile and an earthy edge who has an endearing way of connecting with the audience. His supporting cast matches his energy every step-ball-change of the way.

The score consists of three different song styles. Those written by Cohan – “Grand Old Flag,” the “USO Medley” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy – are high energy patriotic tap extravaganzas. Those by Creighton take a more sentimental turn as Cagney finds himself “Crazy ‘Bout You,” “Falling in Love,” and pondering “How Will I Be Remembered.” And the rest, by Christopher McGovern, are constructed using creative and interesting devices that musical lovers will really get into.

“Black and White,” the opening number, is a take on the black and white movies of Cagney’s day that returns with a startling twist in the second act. In the writers’ room, he gives Bergasse the opportunity to choreograph a stellar pair of songs – “Warner at Work” and “Cagney at Work” that utilize seated tapping, intricately timed rhythms, and another twist that ties them together for a fantastic result.

Musical director Gerald Sternbach’s 5-piece band upstage of the action packs a lot of sound in their few instruments and also helps visually fill in the space that James Morgan’s traveling scenic design doesn’t. Michael A. Megliola’s lighting also effectively adds dimension in the studio sequences and realistic scenes but the overall look of the stage flattens out during dance numbers. Thats also where Martha Bromelmeiers costumes look cheap in comparison to the otherwise well-done collection of period looks.

If the show was to set its sights on Broadway, it would need to scale up the production design accordingly. As it is, the musical already succeeds in its loving tribute to a great entertainer and will put a smile on your face as you leave the theater.

Robert Creighton (center) and the cast

Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner

A final note to the out-of-town producer. When youre producing a show in LA, you might want to rethink saying LA isnt a theatre town while hitting up the audience for investors in an exceedingly long curtain speech that should have been done at the after party instead of on stage following the performance. Rather than being cute, all you accomplish is alienating your audience.

October 5 – 29, 2017
El Portal Theatre
5269 Lankershim Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91601
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