James Cagney is remembered best for playing tough-talking gangsters in Warner Bros. movies in the 1930s and ’40s, which, according to “Cagney,” a loving and cartoonish small-scale bio-musical playing at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, is exactly how he didn’t want to be remembered.
After years of portraying one dumb, trigger-happy, woman-slapping Irishman after another, as his character complains in the colorful period dialogue of Peter Colley’s book, Cagney started his own production company so he could take on more nuanced roles — ideally involving tap-dancing, the skill that launched him in showbiz. But the public just cried out for more tough guys. This was his great tragedy.
Or so “Cagney” suggests, not altogether convincingly, in between lively tap numbers choreographed by Joshua Bergasse and performed by the small but energetic original cast that made the musical’s off-Broadway run a hit last year. We expect a certain amount of tragedy from a bio-musical: Our sense of fairness requires that a person who reaches dizzying heights also should fall hard. At least as presented here, Cagney’s rise to fame was effortless, a series of lucky breaks. (Bob Hope! What are you doing here at the Times Square Automat? Hope: “Well, Jimmy, I heard of a Broadway role that would be perfect for you — they’re looking for a redhead!”)
Cagney’s family supported him. He didn’t cheat on his wife. He never got addicted to anything. It’s hard to muster schadenfreude for a movie star who wished he’d played fewer gangsters. But if “Cagney” never quite finds a storyline as a drama, it’s enjoyable as a celebration of its subject’s lesser-known talents. The musical’s subtitle could have been: “The Tough Guy Who Was a Song-and-Dance Man at Heart.”
Robert Creighton reprises the title role of the “old hoofer who got lucky in the movies.” Short and blocky, as the real Cagney was, Creighton is a delightfully agile dancer with a pleasing tenor. He co-created this musical and also wrote three songs in its score, including the charmer “Falling in Love.” (Christopher McGovern supplied others, which are rounded out by a selection of 1940s numbers by George M. Cohan.) It’s obvious that Creighton takes great joy in portraying the singing, dancing Cagney — and maybe not quite so much joy in being the guy who won America’s heart with lines like “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door.”
Accordingly, Cagney’s entire Hollywood oeuvre has been compressed into two efficient numbers, leaving plenty of time for tap routines. We see faithfully re-created bits from his early vaudeville career, his performance as Cohan in the 1942 movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (which earned him an Oscar) and his World War II-era USO shows. This extreme focus conveys the impression that, except when he was holding a pistol or roughing somebody up on a soundstage, Cagney was pretty much continuously tap-dancing.
Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Josh Walden and Ellen Z. Wright all shine in supporting roles that, if not especially nuanced, demand near-constant costume changes and a range of accents. The pleasure they take in their broad characterizations of old-timey Americans is hard to resist, as is Bill Castellino’s cheerful and fast-paced direction.
The one character written in more than one dimension is Jack Warner (the spot-on Bruce Sabath), a despot who answers the phone with the catchphrase “Make me happy!” and proudly refers to Warner Bros. as “the San Quentin of the studio system.” He tries to use Cagney like a paper doll. But even this foil ultimately comes off like a caricature, a harmless, even lovable blowhard. And Warner's scenes with his besotted secretary, Jane (Holden), who trots after him trembling with desire, must have seemed less creepy and ill-advised before the Harvey Weinstein stories broke.
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Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankersheim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 29
Info: (818) 508-4200 or CagneyTheMusical.com
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes