Born in 1899, James Francis Cagney Jr. came from the mean streets of New York City. The one-time boxer turned into an accomplished "hoofer" as he worked in the dance halls and cabarets of the city. In 1931 he appeared in the film The Public Enemy, which was one of the most influential gangster movies of the time period. Noted for a famous scene in which he thrusts a grapefruit into the face of costar Mae Clarke, the film launched Cagney into the spotlight. He went on to become the cinema's quintessential tough guy, and one of Jack Warner's and Hollywood's biggest stars. Cagney received an Academy Award nomination in 1938 for Angels With Dirty Faces and again in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. His 1942 performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy won him the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor, and solidified his place as one of the country's most beloved song and dance men.
James Cagney appeared in more than 70 films, and in 1974 received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute for his work. In 1999 the Institute ranked him eighth among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. In his private life Cagney was known as a political and social activist who served as a respected President of the Screen Actors Guild. He passed away of a heart attack at the age of 86 at his Dutchess County farm in New York.
Robert Creighton is simply wonderful as James Cagney. There is enough resemblance between the two men to make the premise work, he has the nimble dancing feet of Cagney, and to be honestsings better than Cagney ever did. What puts him over the top is his dead-on delivery of Cagney's clear-sighted look of appraisal toward the people and situations around him. In those moments he is Cagney all the way. Ellen Zolezzi is pleasantly talented as Cagney's wife Willie. Her energy is a tad bland, however, and one never feels the romantic fire between the two.
The tap numbers are well worth waiting for as they possess just the right choreographic style to showcase the dancing ability of Creighton as Cagney and Joel Newsome as Bob Hope. Aside from Newsome's tapping, he misses the boat as Bob Hope as there is nothing about his performance that remotely resembles Bob Hope in any way. Tina Stafford, Brian Ogilvie and Darrin Baker fill out the cast as a variety of characters. Stafford gives us a nice turn as Cagney's mother, and Ogilvie as his brother Bill is most likable. Baker's portrayal of Jack Warner is solid, except for the annoying habit of loudly clapping his hands together (or slapping objects down on his desk) every time he makes a declarative statement.
A great deal of work has clearly gone into the original music in the show, as the composers use melodies in counterpoint more than once, and give us fully written harmonic parts. The songs are just not special or memorable enough for the subject matter, and do not seem to spring organically from the scenes in which they are placed. The scenes containing specific bits of film rehearsal and reenactments are interesting and well written, but the script as a whole needs stronger plot points and greater continuity between them. The production is worth seeing for Creighton's performance as Cagney, but the show Cagney! is in need of some work to match the caliber of his performance.
Playwright Peter Colley received an Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award for Cagney! in 2008. He was also nominated for a 2000 Humanitas Prize for screenwriting, and was a semi-finalist for the 2006 and 2007 Eugene O'Neill Awards. In addition to his work for stage, he has written for CBS, CBC, ITV and Fox/Disney.
In addition to his work on Cagney!, Christopher McGovern wrote the libretto and score for Lizzie Borden, and co-conceived and wrote the book, original songs and arrangements for the Florida Stage premiere of Backwards in High Heels. His new musical, A Visit To Roswell, premiered at the Florida Stage 1st Stage Festival last season.
Cagney! will be appearing at the Florida Stage through May 3, 2009. The theater is located in Plaza del Mar, at 262 S. Ocean Blvd. in Manalapan. Florida Stage is a professional theater, with extensive programs for young artists, hiring Equity and non-Equity performers from across the United States. Florida Stage is a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the League of Resident Theatres, the Florida Professional Theatre Association, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, and the National New Play Network. They are funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the county of Palm Beach Tourist Development Fund and the Florida Arts Council, with generous support from The Shubert Foundation, The Heckscher Foundation for Children, The Duane & Dalia Stiller Charitable Trust, Gulf Stream Lumber, Northern Trust Bank of Florida N.A., Fidelity Federal Bank & Trust, and hundreds of individuals and corporations. The Florida Stage remains the only professional theatre in Southeast Florida producing exclusively new and emerging works.
Performance days/times are normally Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday after noons at 2:00 PM; and Sundays at 7:00 PM. Tickets and other information may be obtained by calling the box office at (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3833, or contacting them online at www.floridastage.org.
* Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
** Designates member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.