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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Robert Creighton
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Alex Brightman, Danny Burstein, Leslie Odom Jr., and this Broadway season's other leading men ought to be mighty thankful that the musical Cagney, which premiered at the York Theatre Company last May, has reopened at the Westside Theatre rather than on the Main Stem. If Robert Creighton were in the 2016 Tony race, it would be his to lose. Sorry guys, he's just that terrific.

As James Cagney, the plug-size Irish lug who could hoof it in a pair of tap shoes as handily as he could fulfill the part of Hollywood's A-number-one gangster heavy, Creighton is giving the kind of perpetual-motion-machine performance that earns its purveyors handsome statuettes for their mantelpieces. (Given New York's current housing climate, it probably earns them the fireplace, too.) Throughout the nearly two and a half hours this interminable musical runs, Creighton is a constant source of energy and joy, plowing his way through scenes and songs that are corny (some intentionally so) but that demonstrate his triple-threat-plus skills to unbeatable advantage.

Singing? His tenor is a vocal pop gun that, in its brash and burnished coloration, puts a smile on your face before it's finished ringing in your ear. For comedy, Creighton has impeccable timing, but he can drop into serious mode, too, and adopt a mien of genuine reflection that will quiet your laughs in an instant. And dancing—need you ask? The storm he taps up during the vaudeville and George M. Cohan sequences that provide this show with what little locomotion it can generate are almost enough to prove that old adage about April showers bringing May flowers. Much like Cohan and Cagney were before him, Creighton is a one-man entertainment machine, and is representative of the best its onstage practitioners have to offer in 2016.

Creighton, alas, is also the chief reason that Cagney is such a dispiriting failure: When a performer is this good, you want everything around him to be, too. No dice. In fact, it's a borderline miracle that when Creighton is onstage, he's able to wake up this musical that he wrote with Christopher McGovern and Peter Colley long enough to hit a home run with it. Otherwise, it's as cliché, lazy, and cynical as fourth-tier show-biz bios get.

Can't we all recite the plot even with no foreknowledge? A brusque young guy from the streets torpedoes his career by standing up for the working man and getting fired. On a whim, he applies for a dancing job, gets it (because his calves are good enough—that's an original and unusual touch), and then lands a choice job on Broadway that by chance sends him skyrocketing into the Tinseltown stratosphere, where he's determined to change it for the better—and does. Of course, along the way, he also meets and gets his dream girl; does battle with the evil studio head Jack Warner and a red-scaring federal government; and yet somehow comes out on top as the industry's beloved headliner some 30 years later. And, naturally, he loves his mother.

What sets apart the better musicals of this genre is typically the introduction of some kind of twist to a hackneyed formula. It's not Gypsy Rose Lee that we care about, it's her domineering mother, for example. Or Fanny Brice isn't a traditional beauty but must confront qualms about reversed gender roles long before they were commonplace. Cagney has none of that. The closest it gets is the implication that James was a communist sympathizer, except, you see, he really wasn't—so take that, Dies Committee, and stuff it down your throat!

Librettist Colley and composer-lyricists Creighton and McGovern instead waste time with nonessentials, like a vaudeville montage, two painfully identical movie-making collages contrasting Warner's and Cagney's development styles, a challenge tap between James and Bob Hope (loosely tied to the film The Seven Little Foys), and three staged-to-the-hilt Cohan specialties, at least two of which don't pretend to connect to the plot. The five-piece band, led by Matt Perri, swings but the new songs are a pedantic bunch: Only Creighton's "Falling in Love," which finds James and his future wife stumbling over their words of affection for each other, displays any sense of wit.

Robert Creighton with Bruce Sabath, Ellen Zolezzi,
Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, and Josh Walden
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The cast members, who are all returning from the York run, deliver fine, if broad, turns: Bruce Sabath as a smarmy Jack Warner, Jeremy Benton good-natured as Bob Hope, Danette Holden as a streetwise Ma, Ellen Zolezzi as the peppy wife, and Josh Walden as a series of second bananas. Other carryovers are James Morgan's sets and Mark Pirolo's projections, though they've received a few attractive upgrades; the costumes (by Martha Bromelmeier) and lights (Michael Gilliam) are new and acceptable.

But if the script and score have received any work in the last year, it's not evidenced by what's onstage. Competing framing devices, one featuring a name-making Warner (whose stage time incomprehensibly qualifies him as a second lead) and one involving the 1978 SAG Awards, still make the first ten minutes a complete muddled mess. James's cherished wife and mother barely qualify as walk-ons. For that matter, aside from James's gung-ho union support and highly improvisatory acting techniques, you don't learn a ton about him, either—even the musical itself can't summon enthusiasm about its title character.

The only one who seems to arouse real interest, in the creative team or the audience, is Cohan: His songs ("Give My Regards to Broadway," "Harrigan," "Yankee Doodle Dandy"—trust me, you know them all) are, as always, spectacular, and they've been frothily and frenetically choreographed by Joshua Bergasse with all the panache he brought to last season's revival of On the Town. Whenever Creighton launches himself into them, the effect is electric: great material meeting a great star in one breathless, bewitching explosion.

That's something, even if everything else in Cagney is a dud. And it raises the question: Why not dump the pretenses and just star Creighton in a revival of George M!? He'd more than do it justice. More important, it would do him justice, a feat this fuel-deprived vehicle cannot accomplish.

Through July 3
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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