Monday, April 11, 2016

Cagney: Dancin’ Fool

Josh Walden, Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton in Cagney. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Jimmy Cagney was one of the spryest and most distinctive dancers ever to make movies, but only a fraction of his dozens and dozens of Hollywood pictures showed off that particular corner of his super-size talent. He made six musicals in all, and only two are well known: Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he won the 1942 Oscar for his portrayal of George M. Cohan, a vaudevillian from a theatrical family who became the first American-born purveyor of musical comedy, and the 1955 bio of Ruth Etting, Love Me or Leave Me, in which Doris Day gets all the numbers and Cagney plays (memorably) her gangster boyfriend, Martin Snyder. TCM junkies who have toted up hours watching the Busby Berkeley spectaculars from the thirties are familiar with Footlight Parade (1933). Cagney plays a producer-director of elaborate curtain-raisers for talkies who has to step in at the eleventh hour for a drunken actor to perform the ineffable “Shanghai Lil” opposite Ruby Keeler, bafflingly cast as a Chinese waterfront barfly who’s remained true to her wandering sailor beau. Like several of Cagney’s numbers in Yankee Doodle Dandy (“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and the title song), “Shanghai Lil” is a high point in American film musical history, mostly because of his contribution. Cagney had a long movie career, but it’s a pity he didn’t get to star in more musicals. In my personal pantheon of film-musical performances, his George M. Cohan sits right at the top, next to Barbra Streisand’s as Fanny Brice – another musical-theatre icon from the early twentieth century – in Funny Girl. What the two portrayals have in common is that, unlike in more recent dramatizations of musicians, neither star makes an effort to mask his or her patented style or explosive personality to sound like the real-life character.

The off-Broadway show Cagney (at the Westside Theatre) isn’t a compendium of moments from the handful of Cagney musicals, though it does include “Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a medley of other songs from Yankee Doodle Dandy presented in the context of a World War II USO tour. It’s a new musical bio with its own original score, like Funny Girl or The Will Rogers Follies, and it doesn’t expend much time on Cagney’s movie musicals. Footlight Parade doesn’t merit a mention; aside from Yankee Doodle Dandy, only The Seven Little Foys – a 1955 Bob Hope movie in which Cagney made a cameo appearance as Cohan – shows up. But since Cagney is a musical, and Robert Creighton, who plays him (and who worked on the music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern), is a song and dance man, it’s Cagney the dancer we have in our heads when we leave the theatre. The choreographer Joshua Bergasse has recreated some of Cagney’s routines and invented others, and the six-member ensemble includes three superb male dancers: Creighton, Jeremy Benton as Hope and Josh Walden as Cagney’s brother Bill. (The others are all perfectly proficient, but Bergasse has built the choreography around these three.)

Robert Creighton as James Cagney.
It’s not a great musical – Peter Colley’s book is serviceable and the new songs are mediocre. But it’s not bad. The modesty of the production, directed by Bill Castellino, works in its favor, and it does what few musicals manage to accomplish: it gets better as it goes along. Partly that’s because the narrative, which begins with Jimmy’s stage career in the years just after World War I and his courtship of fellow vaudevillian Willie Vernon (Ellen Zolezzi) – to whom he remained married until his death in 1986 – gathers momentum as it goes along. The book covers his years as a Warner Brothers star in the thirties and forties, his break from the studio to start his own company after the war because he was sick of the interchangeable tough-guy roles Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath, in an astutely calibrated comic performance) threw his way, his return to Warners in White Heat when his pet projects kept tanking, and his investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee because of his generous support of liberal causes. Partly it’s because Cagney, with his independent spirit and his street-fighter resilience, his authenticity and his imaginative actor’s instincts, is such an appealing subject. But mostly it’s because of Robert Creighton, who can act as well as sing and dance and whose fireplug frame and fireball presence make him ideal casting for the title role. I knew Creighton from two of his Encores! shows, Paint Your Wagon and Little Me, in which he played eight roles and damn near stole every scene he was in, an impressive feat when the star of the show is Christian Borle. He’s an excellent Cagney, and when he gets to dance, replicating the star’s uncanny melt-away and pop-up style – like that of a decoy duck with elastic legs – he’s a phenomenon.

We may not be living in a great era for musicals, but the dance component of recent shows, especially the revivals, has been of a consistently high caliber. (Bergasse choreographed both Little Me and the blissfully enjoyable On the Town that began at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and transferred to Broadway last season, and he’s attached to the eagerly-awaited musical of Bull Durham en route for New York in 2017.) Even the Encores! remountings that lack flavor in other ways like Cabin in the Sky haven’t tended to disappoint in the dance department, and one of the best evenings I’ve spent in the theatre in the past year was at Maurice Hines’ tap revue Tappin’ Thru Life. A not inconsequential part of the upward trend of Cagney is the fact that most of the best dancing is stockpiled in the second act. You walk away with a little spring in your step.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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