Take in "Hollywood's Tough Guy in Tap Shoes" with Off-Broadway's Cagney the Musical at the Westside Theater

Image Credit: Cagney
On a recent wandering to New York City to take photos and gather information for an upcoming magazine feature I'm working on, my distracted sidekick - aka cousin Amy - and I decided that it had been way too long since we'd taken in a show and we should amend that. As the last one we'd been to was the 2002 revival of Oklahoma! at the Gershwin Theater you could say that yea, it had been awhile! Once upon a time we used to love to go to Broadway shows - always musicals and generally the classic ones - but over the years they had just become too expensive for us poor working-class gals to afford once you factor in the cost of getting down to the city, etc. As that hasn't really changed over the years, with a play or two in mind that we'd like to see, the plan for this trip was to take a wait-and-see-what-we-can-get-at-the-TKTS-booth attitude while keeping our fingers crossed that we'd be able to see one of our choices if not necessarily our top pick.

For those not familiar with TKTS, allow me to let their website explain. For those who are, feel free to skip this part!
TKTS Discount Booths are the perfect way for everyone to experience the arts in New York City at affordable prices. Choose from a wide array of Broadway and Off Broadway musicals, plays, and dance productions on sale every day at 20% to 50% off regular prices. 
TDF operates three TKTS Discount Booths in New York City, including our flagship location in the heart of Times Square. When you purchase your tickets from TKTS, you are supporting a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to sustaining and sharing the arts and developing the audiences of the future 
Ticket availability and inventory can change quickly throughout the day. We suggest going to a TKTS Discount Booth early in the day. To help plan ahead, you can browse real-time listings on our website or on your mobile device with the official TKTS app.
Before leaving for New York, I downloaded the app on my smarter-than-me phone so we could see what might be available and though we were in the Times Square area and could have joined the lines there, we decided that we'd wait to get tickets until we were in Lower Manhattan as I needed to get to the Fraunces Tavern Museum as part of my magazine research and it was close to another TKTS booth. Not knowing what to expect as neither one of us had ever seen - never mind been to - the South Street Seaport location, we weren't sure how long we might have to wait in line or whaether the show we wanted to see would still be available once we got to the window but we figured we'd give it a shot and hope for the best.

Much to our surprise, once we found the Seaport TKTS Booth (located at the corner of Front and John Streets near the rear of the Resnick/Prudential Building at 199 Water Street) we were quite - no, make that VERY surprised to find that there was basically no one in line at all unlike the Times Square TKTS Booth which snakes slowly past the statue of George M. Cohan while people wait for a long, long time using up precious time that could better off spent doing some other sightseeing or finding a nice corned beef on rye.

Anyhow, after our shock wore off we were even more delighted to see that the off-Broadway show that we had been hoping to get to was on still the "available show" list and at half-price too. Does it get much better than that? I think not!  Cousin Amy happily handed over the cost of one ticket in exchange for two and within minutes we were on our merry way to see some of the sights of Lower Manhattan before heading back uptown to our hotel and then off to see the 8:00 pm performance of Cagney the Musical.

For those wondering why we chose an off-Broadway show versus a Broadway show, as a former tap dancer herself trained at Miss Dottie's School of Dance in small-town Connecticut and a big fan of the movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy" that starred James Cagney, Amy had first mentioned going to see Cagney when we began planning our trip to New York City back in February as she saw that the play was going to be opening off-Broadway shortly before our scheduled trip. For some reason though we kept putting off buying tickets and adopting that wait-and-see attitude I mentioned previously; probably it was because we live in New England and even though we were taking our trip in late April, one just never knew what the weather was going to do and it would have stunk on ice to have tickets and then not be able to get there to use them.  So we waited and saw and ultimately lucked out with getting tickets which had us enjoying our seats in Row K with a great view of the stage when the show began.

So what's Cagney the Musical about?  Well, according to the show's production notes, "Cagney was the consummate performer who could do it all – sing, dance, play the bad guy, the good guy, the patriot, the gangster." So the musical play "follows the actor from his humble beginnings in New York City's Lower East Side through his rise as a vaudeville song-and-dance man to his super-stardom in Hollywood. In this insightful and surprising musical journey, a brand-new original score filled with show-stopping song and dance numbers is augmented by George M. Cohan songs."

James Cagney:  Image Credit
For those of you too young to even know who the play's namesake was, in a nutshell he was born James Francis Cagney in Manhattan's Lower East Side on July 17th, 1899, the red-haired, blue-eyed son of Carolyn (Nelson) and James Francis Cagney, Sr. who was a bartender and amateur boxer. One of seven children (two of whom died in infancy), Cagney worked as a waiter and wrapped packages at Wanamaker's Department Store helping to support his family before he began performing on the vaudeville circuit at age 19 - with no song-and-dance training whatsoever. Signing a contract with Warner Brothers in 1930 as a supporting actor - even though he wasn't what was considered "leading man material" at the time - Cagney soon went on to become one of Hollywood's toughest leading men as the silver screen's top mobster but when he won his first and only Oscar for Best Actor, it wasn't for a role as one of those legendary tough guys but for his portrayal as a completely different character - the fabled entertainer and true-blue, flag-waving American George M. Cohan in the 1942 film "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Needless to say, it was Cagney's favorite role.

Orson Welles once said that Cagney was "maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera" while the New York Times called him a "Master of Pugnacious Grace" with "... an explosive energy and a two-fisted vitality that made him one of the great film personalities of Hollywood's golden age."  Jack L. Warner, president of the famed Warner Bros. Studio, probably called him a royal pain in the keister though as Cagney walked out on the studio over creative differences several times during his career and then successfully sued the studio for a breach of contract in 1935.

Robert Creighton: Image Credit
There's a lot more to Cagney's life but just based on that small amount, yes - there does indeed seem to be a rather interesting story to be told. But how did "the toughest guy in tap shoes" end up having a musical of his own? Enter actor, singer, dancer, composer, and author Robert Creighton, co-writer and star of Cagney, who as a young boy growing up in Walkerton, Ontario once dreamed of becoming a goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs and/or acting on Broadway while dancing like Fred Astaire. Though he never attained the goal of goalkeeper, in 2003 he did score his first Broadway role in Jackie Mason's "Standing Room Only" which was soon followed by other Broadway roles as well as episodic work on television including roles in "Life on Mars" and "Law and Order" along with assorted voice-over work - some which you've no doubt heard and don't even know it.

With all that though, for years Creighton had it in his head that he was destined to someday play the role of James Cagney who, as Creighton grew older, had taken the place of Fred Astaire in his dreams - dreams that were to become destiny. In a 2015 interview with playwright and freelance theater journalist Kenneth Jones Creighton said:
"When I first moved to New York, I was told by an acting teacher that I reminded him of Jimmy Cagney. I started watching his films and became instantly mesmerized! (Read: obsessed!) Then I started learning about his life and I just felt connected somehow. Not that we came from similar backgrounds or anything. I honestly can’t explain it. Then in the film “Man of a Thousand Faces” he is playing Lon Chaney and his son’s name is Creighton Chaney. So there was this actor I was becoming so engrossed in discovering yelling “Creighton! Creighton!” on the screen. I took it as a sign!"
Heeding the sign, Creighton began writing a one-act play about Cagney on his own before joining forces with playwright Peter Cooley to bring his vision to life. Five years later, Creighton and Cooley did a reading of the play in New York which was followed by a collaboration with lyricist/musician Christopher McGovern and director Bill Castellino to add some more meat to the bones of the play. Soon award-winning choreographer Joshua Bergasse joined the creative team to keep everyone on their toes - literally! - and the rest of the cast was assembled: Bruce Sabath, Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Josh Walden, Ellen Zolezzi, and Kristie Kerwin.

On May 28, 2015 Cagney made its New York debut with the York Theater Company playing a limited five-week, sold-out engagement, Shortly after the play opened the reviews rolled out with the New York Times proclaiming that Creighton "... seems born for the role" while the New York Post declared that "Robert Creighton Shines as Cagney" in their review. With a good number of other positive reviews, it appeared that James Cagney really had been calling "Creighton! Creighton!" to Creighton.

Following the short engagement and a bit of tweaking here and there to tighten things up, in April of this year the original cast and creative team of Cagney moved into the Westside Theater Upstairs for an open-ended engagement where they now sing and dance their hearts out for eight performances, six days a week in the former-church-turned theater where there's really not a bad seat in the house. History lover that I am, I thought it was quite interesting that the theater, which is located not too far off of Times Square in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan, was originally built to be the home of the Second German Baptist Church. The Romanesque Revival-style building continued to serve in that capacity until the 1960s when it then became a nightclub for a period of time before becoming a respected off-Broadway venue in 1976.

Anyway ... other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?  Well, I'm not a theater critic (nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express recently) but as someone who regularly doesn't mind sharing her opinions, let me just say that overall it was quite good and the dance numbers were exceptionally good. Told in a series of flashbacks from 1978 when Cagney received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award back to just before he first started dancing, the small cast plays multiple roles throughout the play with the only exception being Creighton who stars strictly as Cagney himself.  It's casting that works and  the play runs along so well that it was easy to forget that the character who just came onstage in one role, had just been on the stage in another.

With musical numbers co-written by Christopher McGovern and Robert Creighton, there are some pieces that are quite outstanding including the duet between Cagney and his soon-to-be-wife Willie (played by Ellen Zolezzi) titled "Falling in Love" and a number titled "Warner at Work" that makes a reprise in Act II as "Cagney at Work." I wasn't really enamored of Creighton's solo song "Mean" but I quite enjoyed his other Act II solo "How Will I Be Remembered" though I couldn't help but think of lyrics from the Broadway smash Hamilton whose company sings, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" (Haven't seen it but I've played the soundtrack to death!) The two songs are nothing alike but what can I say, it stuck in my head. All things considered, maybe it's not a bad thing to have a small comparison to Broadway's biggest smash ever but I wouldn't go so far as to call it "the poor man's Hamilton" as one theater reviewer did here.

Josh Walden, Ellen Zolezzi, Robert Creighton, Danette Holden and Jeremy Benton in a scene from “Cagney” at the Westside Theatre
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Of course the real show-stopping numbers come courtesy of George M. Cohan when Creighton and Company perform "Grand Old Flag", "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and "USO Medley."  I dunno, maybe it's the patriotic American in me but I can't seem to help but watch a well-done tap-dancing number and not get a bit swelled with pride even though I had absolutely nothing to do with the performance itself. I took 3 or 4 tap lessons as an adult and found that I was quite bad at it thus effectively ending my dream of ever tapping but at least I know a little bit firsthand how hard it is to dance like that so it makes me very happy to see people who can.  Maybe I watched too many Gene Kelley dance sequences growing up or something but regardless, when the cast of Cagney start singing and dancing in the Cohan numbers, that's when the really real magic begins on the stage. The tricky part though is that they're all so doggone good your eyes just don't know where to watch!

Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton perform a dance number as Cagney and Bob Hope.
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Speaking of talented tapping, aside from the Cohan pieces one of the best numbers in the show comes in the second act when Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton) stops by Cagney's house to try to talk him back into show business and star with him in his upcoming feature "The Seven Little Foys." The two very talented performers have a bit of a tap-off and it's just terrific and awesome to watch.  Not only do you get to see how good Creighton and Benton are on their feet but you also get to see how much they enjoy what they're doing as even though they're both obviously playing a role, I think it takes more than good acting to put the looks of pure joy on their faces that they exhibit during the routine. If I'm wrong about that, no one tell me!

Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner and Danette Holden as his secretary in a scene from “Cagney” at the Westside Theatre
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
As for the other characters in Cagney, hands down one of the best is that of Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. Studios who brings Cagney to Hollywood sight unseen when he's looking to cast a new leading man. Played by Bruce Sabath, I just loved Jack Warner who was kind of the bad guy but not really as he takes on the role of Cagney's nemesis. Jane, played by Danette Holden who also plays the role of Ma Cagney and others, adds some terrific comedic touches as Warner's harried yet smitten secretary; watching the two of them together was great fun and made me happy.

Overall the play was very enjoyable and I walked out not just humming a few tunes but knowing a lot more about James Cagney than I did when I walked in - which if I'm being honest wasn't much beyond knowing that he played Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and talked like a gangster in most of his other movies. Now I'd like to amend that as Creighton really brought Cagney to life and made me want to know more about him not just as an actor but as a humanitarian.

Just to prove that I'm not the only one thinking good things about Cagney - far from it!they're obviously doing something right at the Westside Theater as Cagney was recently nominated for two Drama Desk awards in the categories of Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Robert Creighton) and Outstanding Choreography (Joshua Bergasse) while they also received four nominations from the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards which for the very first time this year are also honoring outstanding dance and choreography for off-Broadway productions. Nominations went to Joshua Bergasse for Best Choreography, Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton (both!) for Outstanding Male Dancer Off-Broadway, and to Ellen Zolezzi for Outstanding Female Dancer Off-Broadway.

With sets and costumes that were simple, Cagney certainly doesn't compare to the over-the-top productions that a lot of Broadway shows seem to be these days so if it ever does cross over a few blocks to open on Broadway, it may have to change a bit here and there to appeal to the masses but I hope that if/when it does, it keeps its terrific cast led by an actor who truly was born to play the role of James Cagney and play it very well indeed. As another play once extolled, "You gotta have heart" and there's no doubt that Creighton definitely does.

Kudos to Robert Creighton and all of the folks at Cagney the Musical - keep up the great work and I'm sure you'll be Top of the World (Ma) for a long time to come!

For a bit of a peek at the production courtesy of Cagney on YouTubehere ya go! - and then when you want to buy tickets to see it yourself you may find all this to be helpful:

Tickets for Cagney are priced at $89 and may be purchased by calling Telecharge: (212) 239-6200 or by visiting Telecharge.com or if you're lucky - finding a ticket available at one of the TKTS locations operated by the Theatre Development Fund, a not-for-profit organization created to provide support to theatrical works of artistic merit.


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