“Cagney” Musical Taps Its Way Into Your Heart

“Cagney” Musical Taps Its Way Into Your Heart

Though only 5’5”, James Cagney was a huge star of stage and screen best known for his roles in gangster pictures of the 1930s-1950s, as well as his Academy Award winning performance as George M. Cohan in the biographical musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The Off-Broadway musical “Cageny” chronicles his show business career, ranging from his first role in vaudeville to when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1974.

A tough guy makes for a great protagonist in a musical because emotional songs are a not-so-sneaky way to get inside a character’s head. What’s special about James Cagney is that he was a hoofer in his own right, so it makes perfect sense to have a tap-happy musical about this scrappy guy from New York.

Robert Creighton (center) as James Cagney, with company of "Cagney." (©Carol Rosegg)

Robert Creighton not only stars as the title character in “Cagney,” but he contributed several songs to the score, including one of my favorite numbers, “Falling in Love,” a duet between Cagney and his then-girlfriend, Willie (Ellen Zolezzi). Creighton is a dynamo on that stage—deftly playing Cagney’s softer side as well as nailing the gangster scenes and intricate tap routines. His dancing is as athletic as it is graceful, bringing out the best in Joshua Bergasse’s phenomenal choreography.

The tap dancing in this show is a joy to watch and wonderfully executed by this talented cast of six. The USO Medley and friendly dance-off between Cagney and Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton) made me smile so hard that my face hurt.

Honestly, I did not know much about James Cagney before seeing this musical, though he was always someone on my radar because I had seen clips of his films over the years. I was familiar with his famous line from “White Heat” — “Made it ma, top of the world!” — but surprisingly not with his working relationship with Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, nor the extent of his stage work prior to starring in his string of gangster films. I knew about HUAC and its dealings with the film industry, but not about Cagney’s involvement. He had a fascinating life and I’m grateful for this musical because now I have a better understanding of who James Cagney was and how much of an impact he had on the entertainment industry.

As I left the theater when the musical was over, I felt full. I appreciated learning so much about Cagney on top of the wonderful performances and fantastic tap dancing. This was one of the most pleasant trips to the theater I’ve had this year and feel that this truly is a must-see show for fans of tap and show business history.

“Cagney” is presently running at the Westside Theatere in the Upstairs Theatre on W. 43rd St.

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