Thursday, April 2, 2009

Theater review: 'Cagney!' overshadowed by its star

Robert Creighton in Cagney!

By Hap Erstein

Sometimes it takes decades for an actor to stumble upon the role of a lifetime, and sometimes it can happen early in his career. It is hard to say what lies ahead for singer-dancer Robert Creighton, but it seems unlikely he will ever have a part as well suited to his considerable talents as Jimmy Cagney.

That is not to say that Cagney!, the world premiere biographical musical now at Florida Stage, is an entirely successful account of the life and times of the Oscar-winning hoofer and cinematic gangster icon. It struggles to find sufficient drama in Cagney’s climb to stardom, and when it comes up short, the show settles for entertaining songs and tap numbers that add little to the story line.

Still, when Creighton goes into a wide-stanced, stiff-legged dance or struts across the stage and launches into a song of fierce determination, the Manalapan audience overlooks any dramaturgical shortcomings and cheers him on.

Although director Bill Castellino has a serviceable cast, none of the other five hard-working performers is on Creighton’s level. I never thought I would suggest this, but perhaps Cagney’s story would be better served by being reconceived as a one-man show.

The script by Peter Colley uses the short, stocky, red-haired Irish actor’s 1978 lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild as its framing device. From there, it flashes back to Cagney’s early stage breakthroughs, then studio head Jack Warner’s pursuit of him as the latest hot property from Broadway.

In Hollywood, the actor proves eerily persuasive as a hot-headed, violence-prone mobster, which catapults him to celluloid fame, but being typecast as a crime boss soon becomes constricting. Cagney breaks out briefly, playing song-and-dance-man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Seven Little Foys, but the public is more interested in seeing him as a tough guy, even if he never actually said, “You dirty rat!” on screen.

The show’s score comes mainly from musical director Christopher McGovern, whose songs give the show forward propulsion, but are hardly memorable. Creighton provides the best of the new songs, penning an amusing romantic ditty, Fallin’ in Love, for a tongue-tied Cagney and his wife-to-be, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi).

McGovern and Creighton’s songs are overshadowed by such familiar Cohan tunes as Give My Regards to Broadway and Over There, stuffed into an extended second act medley that has little narrative purpose. And the show ends with Cohan’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a way to get the audience leaving the show humming.

Darrin Baker plays Cagney’s nemesis Warner with vigor, a role that could stand some expansion. If we were not told that Joel Newsome is impersonating Bob Hope we would never guess it. The tangential part’s chief purpose seems to be a second act challenge tap number, which Creighton wins handily.

Cagney! has been long in development and judging from the demand for tickets -- the show is virtually sold out for its run here, through May 3 -- there is significant fascination for the title character. At the moment, Cagney! is diverting enough, but there is a better show lurking within the material that has not yet surfaced.

Still, if you can figure out a way to see it, you are bound to be impressed by Creighton.

CAGNEY!, Florida Stage, 262 South Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Continuing through May 3. Tickets: $42-$45. Call: (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837.

2 comments:

delraybeachfilmfestival. said...

Delray Beach, FL, <(March 24, 2009)>Direct from Sundance, The Delray Beach Film Festival announces the Florida premiere and its opening night film, The Answer Man. Directed by first time writer/director John Hindman, the film stars Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale) Lauren Graham (of the Gilmore Girls) and Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker).

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree. I thought the show was fantastic as a whole. I thought the musical numbers worked and the effect was wonderful. I highly recommend this show; it was
phenomenal and all of the actors were talented. One could sense that there was extensive preparation and rehearsal; it seemed almost flawless.