When you think of all the figures crying out for a musical about their life, James Cagney, the tough guy from films like The Public Enemy and White Heat, doesn't appear to top the list. It makes a bit more sense when you remember that Cagney was more than just an actor who specialized in gangster roles. As the world learned from his Oscar-winning turn as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he was also an accomplished song-and-dance man, one who spent several years on the vaudeville circuit before heading to Hollywood.
As it turns out, Cagney's life makes for a very charming show. Now at the York Theatre Company in its Big Apple premiere, Cagney stars Robert Creighton, a veteran of Broadway's The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Anything Goes, who dazzles with a performance that is highly energetic and exceedingly charismatic. Creighton also takes on creative duties cowriting the music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern. While the piece has its problems (namely in Peter Colley's book), Cagney is definitely a crowd-pleaser, one that, like its hero, you can't help but root for.
Told via flashback, the show begins at the 1978 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Cagney is to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath), head of the famed film studio Warner Bros. and Cagney's former boss and erstwhile nemesis, is presenting the honor. As the two meet for the first time in years, they recount the actor's rise from tough-talking New York City construction worker to accidental vaudeville star to typecast Hollywood heavyweight.
Where Cagney falters is in the exact same spot as most other biographical musicals in the canon. In attempting to condense more than 60 years into just under two and a half hours, certain crucial elements ripe for dramatization — like Cagney's alleged "pinko sympathies" — get shortchanged in favor of other, less compelling subject matters. Why Warner, played by Sabath with more than just a moustache twirl, takes up so much focus is one questionable aspect of Colley's book. Similarly, in a first act that almost entirely focuses on Cagney's courtship and marriage to fellow vaudeville vet Frances Willard Vernon (called "Billie" in real life and "Willie" in the show), that character all but disappears in the second act — which is disappointing since the talented Ellen Zolezzi makes us fall in love with Willie very quickly.
Musically, Cagney hits its stride early on, with a score that blends Christopher McGovern's original music and work by Cohan himself. The presence of time-tested tunes like "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Give My Regards to Broadway" does a bit of a disservice to the numbers written specifically for this show (how can you remember any of the new material when you walk out whistling "Yankee Doodle Dandy"?), but not enough to be completely detrimental. Creighton, whose titanic performance anchors the production, is also the author of the show's best number, the truly delightful "Falling in Love," which puts a deliciously unexpected spin on the standard-issue romantic ballad.
Director Bill Castellino could afford to pick up the pace, allowing the show to move more swiftly on a set (by York artistic leader James Morgan) that seamlessly blends sliding doors and projections (by Mark Pirolo). The real highlight of the physical production is the choreography by Tony nominee Joshua Bergasse (On the Town), which is a dream come true for lovers of tap dance. When Creighton and his fellow cast members click their heels on the wooden floor, Cagney turns into a blissful experience that makes you want to stand up and cheer.