Cagney

By Andrew Andrews

When you think of musicals, you might think of lavish sets and a large cast with dozens of songs and a hundred-foot-long chorus line. And although Cagney feels like that type of show, it manages to do so with only six talented actors. Normally, we find it difficult to suspend belief when the same actor plays multiple important characters during a show (especially in a big ticket on Broadway such as Hamilton), but Ellen Zolezzi (as Willie Cagney and others), Jeffry Denman (Bob Hope and others), Danette Holden (Ma Cagney, Jane and others) and Josh Walden (Bill Cagney and others) all manage to switch rather seamlessly between their roles with just a few seconds off stage and substantial costume changes. But changing personas is hardly the limit to any of their talents: as you’d expect from a musical that’s barely off-Broadway, their skills extend to pitch-perfect singing and spot-on dancing, too.

To be honest, there is one actor that, we feel, should not have been stuck with double-duty: Bruce Sabath’s assignments are not quite distinct enough as both Jack Warner (head of Warner Brothers studios) and congressman Martin Dies. Don’t be misled by this minor critique, though: Sabath’s Warner is impeccable and Dies was such a brief appearance that it’s hard to fault the company for the decision. Hopefully, when the show makes it to Broadway proper (and we suspect it will), Sabath will retain the role of Warner, and Dies (along with the other aforementioned “others”) will be handed off to additional actors.

The star of the show, of course, is Robert Creighton as James Cagney, and he plays the part marvelously. Creighton introduces Cagney as a scrappy red-headed Irishman trying to support his mother and brother in their East Village tenement, tough when it counts but with a good heart and a mind of his own, and carries that image consistently through the end of the show. Although there are a few minor discrepancies between Cagney’s biography and the musical’s protagonist (including, for example, the omission of his children from the cast of characters), Creighton’s Cagney is completely believable and indisputably lovable. The real James Cagney would almost certainly be proud of this play.

A musical, however, must be far greater than the sum of its actors to be a hit: let’s not forget the book by Peter Colley, music and lyrics by Christopher McGovern and Creighton himself, choreography by Joshua Bergasse and direction of Bill Castellino. Together, the entire cast has created a performance that just feels more substantial than a mere six talented people on stage. We’re talking about memorable lyrics, delightful dances (including some creative use of tap as an analog for typewriters racketing), and dialog that’s as easy to follow as it is to believe. Let’s also credit Martha Bromelmeier’s costumes for helping to distinguish each actor’s multiplicity of roles (with the possible exception of Dies, but let’s face it, was there much difference in appearance between a congressman and a Hollywood executive in the last century?) and all of the set designers for adequately conveying a wide variety of scenes with just a few moving panels, a handful of props and an ever-changing series of projections.

The bottom line is: this is a musical that deserves more fanfare, delivered by a cast and crew that deserves more acclaim—and we expect it to happen. So do what we did: head over to the TKTS booth and grab a discounted seat to the Westside Theatre (as far as we can tell, there’s not a bad one in the house) before this show goes big and the tickets get pricier and harder to come by!

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5

Andrew Andrews attended Cagney at Westside Theatre in New York on Sunday, November 27, 2016 @ 3:00pm to write this review.