I have no real idea what to make of the bio-musical Cagney, an overview of the life and career of tough-guy character-leading man of the movies, James Cagney. The book, by Peter Colley has in its favor having found a framework in which to present a lifespan without focus-sprawl though providing continuous forward moving energy; yet it seems fairly perfunctory in the execution. The music and lyrics by Robert Creighton (who is also impressive in the title role) and Christopher McGovern, follow a kind of by-the-numbers (no pun intended) plan that fulfills the needs of most moments, yet doesn’t deliver anything much that’s better than blandly, familiarly functional. You might say that the show's over-arching, way-bright style means to emulate a general sense of the presentation style that infused and informed the classic movies of Cagney’s heyday…yet it doesn’t replicate that general sense consistently or well enough to count as a stylistic choice of significance.
Basically, the goddamn thing gets away with itself on the strength of two elements: the first, as indicated above, is structural coherence.
The second is energy.
The direction, by Bill Castellino, is summer stock shiny, the cast directed to jump into each character trope with shameless, unsubtle abandon—and the choreography by Joshua Bergasse, is as Yankee Doodle’d and happy-tappy as you can stand, and then persuades you that you can stand a little more.
The delivery system—on an impressive, nostalgia-loving set by James Morgan, not incidentally, easily facilitating cinematic fluidity—is far more impressive than the show itself; which, taken song for song and scene for scene, if you clock the audience reaction to anything but the dance numbers, doesn’t ever perform better than decently. But that mechanical decent-ness plus the dance numbers, plus the walk-in curiosity about Cagney that the audience themselves bring to the party…
…well, that unique confluence pulls off a fluke of an evening the like of which I’ve never quite experienced before. But I begrudge it nothing. I’d even cautiously tell you to see for yourself. Because I’m not a dirty rat…
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