Review: ‘Cagney’ needs work before it’s ready to go from Salt Lake City to Broadway

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actor Robert Creighton is the writer, composer and star of "Cagney: The Musical," now running at Pioneer Theatre Company, where it is being groomed for a possible run on Broadway.

There might be a Broadway musical somewhere inside “Cagney,” which is currently playing at Pioneer Theatre Company. But maybe not.

The producers of the show — book by Peter Colley, music and lyrics by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern — have ambitions to take it to the Great White Way. But they’ve got a lot of work to do to turn what’s sort of a muddled mess into a tight and engaging production that anyone will pay Broadway prices to see.

“Cagney” wasn’t terrible. But if it’s worth the $45-$68 PTC is charging for tickets, that’s almost entirely because of the second-act tap dancing numbers, which brought a somnambulant audience to life with an explosion of sequins and high-energy footwork.

And the cast — led by Robert Creighton in the title role — is better than the material.

(Tribune file photo) James Cagney

Don’t get me wrong, I love James Cagney (1899-1986). The man was a Hollywood legend with a reputation as a genuinely good guy, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is one of my favorite movies.

But this stage musical about his life lacks focus, pace and energy. Among the areas that need work:

• It’s trying to tell us so much about Cagney’s life that it doesn’t do much of anything well. It focuses on his affinity for labor unions, which leads to him being accused of being a communist — and then that plot line quickly disappears. It focuses on Cagney’s romance with his wife (Jessica Wockenfuss) of more than 60 years, then she disappears for a big chunk of the show.

(A minor point, but be aware that the history is jumbled — for example, Cagney returns to Warner Bros. to film “White Heat” after co-starring in “The Seven Little Foys,” which is a major plot point. In reality, “Heat” was released in 1949, and “Foys” in 1955.)


The musical “Cagney,” which is being groomed for a possible Broadway run, is being produced by Pioneer Theatre Company.

Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

When • Opened Sept. 20 and runs through Oct. 5

Showtimes • Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., no shows on Sundays

Tickets • $68 for the main floor and loge; $45 for the balcony, at pioneertheatre.org

• The narrative device that frames the show — flash-forwards to 1978, when studio chief Jack Warner (Darrin Baker) presents Cagney with a SAG lifetime achievement award — is a cliché that’s not particularly effective. Whitewashing Warner, a real-life Hollywood villain who’s been compared to Harvey Weinstein, into a grumpy-but-somehow-lovable guy feels dishonest. And having Warner’s secretary, Jane (Darien Crago), chase after the married womanizer is just plain weird.

• There’s some great, memorable music in “Cagney” — but if you walk out humming anything, it will be the George M. Cohan standards (“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway”), not the forgettable original tunes. The Cohan numbers got a rousing ovation from the audience; the original numbers received rather tepid applause.

• “Cagney” is a very old-fashioned musical. Even the jokes are old, and most of the laughter came from older audience members. The first act feels like a staid standard you can imagine high schools productions of, although it’s hard to imagine teens pulling off the tap dancing extravaganzas.

And the narrative largely assumes that audience members are familiar not just with Cagney, but with Lauren Bacall, Errol Flynn, Bob Hope (Matt Crowle), Shirley Temple and Louella Parsons — and that’s a big ask of anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1940s.

• “Cagney” is too long, at just over 2½ hours (with a 15-minute intermission). And it’s crying out for obvious cuts — a weak Act 1 musical number (“There’s Nothing I Won’t Do for You”) that doesn’t advance the plot at all; and what seem like multiple endings.

• It’s not fair to compare “Cagney” to “Hamilton” — very different men, very different shows. Except, perhaps, to point out that the stakes for Alexander Hamilton involve the birth of a new nation; the stakes for Jimmy Cagney involve an actor trying to overcome being typecast as a tough guy. So the drama feels overdone.

My 20-something daughter suggested she would have been more entertained by an evening of tap-dance numbers. I walked out thinking a stage adaptation of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” might be a good idea.

But would I pay the average price of a Broadway musical — $113 in 2018 — to see this version of “Cagney”? Absolutely not.