Jonathan Shade Reviews Cagney

photo: Maryann Lopinto
Article: Jonathan Shade ~

With the exception of Shuffle Along, which opened on The Great White Way not too long ago, there are not many places where a fan of the old-fashioned, rousing tap dancing musicals can turn. Fear not, tap fans: the crowds are jumping out of their seats at the Westside Theatre where the York Theatre Company’s production of Cagney opened recently.

Tap impresario Joshua Bergasse, who was robbed at last year’s Tony Award ceremony for his astounding choreography for On the Town, has done it again– only this time, he’s working with a cast of five dancers instead of near thirty, and the stage is about an eighth of the size of the Lyric Theatre, which only serves to make the energy coming from a cast of triple-threats more palpable. In fact, the audience is so close to the stage, you can hear every single contact of shoe to stage as if It were a pin dropping in a vacuum. The tapping is precise, proficient, and percolating with invention.

Robert Creighton, physically a dead ringer for Cagney himself — short, stout, and compact, is fantastic in the title role. He also sports the stereotypical New York “tough guy” attitude rather convincingly, and he possesses the elusive “Cagney charisma” as an actor, carrying the entire show, hardly leaving the stage throughout the two and a half hour evening.

The book, written by Peter Colley, is an above average “paint by numbers” bio-musical, which is entertaining and funny, full of corny one-liners appropriate to the time period, but it’s not very enlightening. It only touches upon Cagney’s struggles against the studio system, which pigeonholed him into playing only tough guys. I also would have liked a little more focus on the McCarthy hearings. The score, mainly written by Christopher McGovern with a few numbers by Mr. Creighton himself, is fine, but feels a bit disjointed at times due to the differences in writing styles.  But, there are a few nice moments where the both shine; Mr. Creighton shows us that he certainly knows how to write a charm song (“Falling in Love”). The song “Black and White,” by Mr. McGovern, which opens both acts is a tuneful standout.  And alongside these are old patriotic tuners such as “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Over There” and, of course a song which will be forever tied to Cagney, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” [All were written by George M. Cohan, the songwriter/performer Cagney famously played in the movie biography titled after that last-named song, and included in it.]

Economically directed by Bill Castellino, who keeps the evening moving swiftly along, Cagney is good enough to keep one’s interest, but it’s when the actors, who each play dozens of small roles and bit characters throughout Cagney’s life, put on their dancing shoes and tap their and our troubles away, that the show reaches real heights of honest euphoria.

If you enjoy old-fashioned musicals and high-energy dance routines, performed by a winning and very talented cast, a very satisfying evening is in store, should you choose to buy a ticket to Cagney. You won’t be disappointed. 

The Westside Theatre is at 407 West 43 Street. Tickets at   Also see