Cagney!

Cagney 1

Conceived by Robert Creighton
Written by Peter Colley
Music & Lyrics by Robert Creighton & Christopher McGovern
Directed by Bill Castellino
Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Musical direction by Christopher McGovern
Performed by Robert Creighton, Darrin Baker, Joel Newsome, Brian Ogilvie, Risa Waldman, Amy Wallis
Drayton Entertainment Production
Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend
July 28 to August 7, 2010
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

The Tough Guy Who Danced

I only knew one thing about James Cagney: he said, “You dirty rat!” Well, I learned a lot in an evening at Cagney!, a new musical. James Cagney never uttered that line in a movie, and he was much more than the tough guy who appeared on the silver screen.

Cagney! opened this week at Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend, the brainchild of Robert Creighton who plays the lead role. It’s the fascinating true story of the actor James Cagney, who created a legacy as a tough guy in movies starting in 1930.

The show opens in 1978, with Cagney receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, presented to him by his old nemesis Jack Warner of Warner Bros. Throughout the show, we learn of their love-hate relationship. They didn’t like each other, but they needed each other to make money.

Act I opens with Cagney as a red-headed, quick tempered Irish-New Yorker, who at the same time, is very kind-hearted and looking out for the underdog. As a labourer, he was fired for speaking out about the way fellow workers were treated. He had been an amateur boxer, but his influential mother forbade him to go professional. After being told how light on his feet he was, Cagney decides to try dancing. He becomes a singer/dancer/comedian on the Vaudeville circuit. There he meets his wife, “Willie”, to whom he was married for more than 60 years.

Soon, he is the hottest act on Broadway, and Jack Warner calls him to be in films. Under contract with Warner Bros., he stars in movie after movie as the tough guy. The movies need bad guys: “If it weren’t for Goliath, David would just be some punk throwing rocks.” And indeed he says, “You dirty yellow-bellied rat”.

Cagney longs for the nice guy roles, and a chance to show his skills as a singer and hoofer. But Warner has him type cast as the villain. Finally he gets the chance. In 1942, Cagney plays George Cohen in the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, proving himself by winning a best actor Oscar.

Robert Creighton is excellent in the lead role that he created for himself. Creighton, who grew up in Walkerton, Ontario, has been on stage at Huron Country Playhouse many times, starting as a student. He has an impressive resume, recently appearing on Broadway as Timon in The Lion King. He sings and dances his way through Cagney, making it look very easy. He demonstrates amazing energy in his tap dance numbers. For more about Robert Creighton, see my interview with him at  www.entertainthisthought.com under Mary’s Musings.

The rest of the cast plays multiple roles to round out the story. Darrin Baker is excellent, playing a nasty Jack Warner. Baker returns to Canada for this production with a remarkable list of Broadway credits. Brian Ogilvie plays brother Bill Cagney, who takes to the stage with Jimmy. Ogilvie is an incredible tap dancer who shines in the Yankee Doodle Dandy numbers. Joel Newsome plays Bob Hope, Cagney’s friend. Together Newsome and Creighton have a great scene from the failed movie “The Seven Little Foys”. Ogilvie and Newsome are New York actors, making their Canadian debut. Risa Waldman plays Warner’s secretary Jane and Cagney’s mother, while Amy Wallis is charming as Cagney’s wife Willie. Both women demonstrate excellent singing and dancing in their various roles.

Credit goes to choreographer Joshua Bergasse for the high-speed, energetic dance numbers. The scenes where the writers are working at typewriters and tapping their toes to create the sound are very well done.

The story of Jimmy Cagney is fascinating in itself, but this musical production adds to the interest with good songs, excellent dance, and humourous one-liners scattered throughout. Those who are fans of Vaudeville style entertainment and old black and white movies will enjoy this show. And those who think James Cagney was just a dirty rat must see it.

Cagney! continues with eight shows a week until August 7 at Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend. Tickets are available at the Huron Country Playhouse box office at 519-238-6000, Drayton Entertainment at 1-888-449-4463, or check out www.draytonentertainment.com

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