Watching Cagney, a new musical by Peter Colley, Robert Creighton, and Christopher McGovern about the revered silver-screen hoodlum (and occasional tap-dance man), is a bit like encountering a singing-and-dancing Wikipedia page. It’s good-natured, informative, and seemingly comprehensive. But it might appeal most to confirmed Cagney-o-philes. While this York Theatre Company production boasts plenty of old-school showmanship, it tends toward nostalgic hagiography, offering little memorable insight into Cagney’s life or career.
In rags-to-stardom succession we see young Jimmy C. (played with Gaelic glee by Creighton himself) overcome his humble origins to achieve vaudeville renown — a fun drag number features a hat made of fruit — and Hollywood fame. Trading on his hard-luck beginnings and all-around feistiness, he creates the gangster persona he spent the rest of his career trying to shed. We catch hints of his political beliefs (pro-union) and a general patina of niceness but not much appreciation of what drove the man.
The greatest-hits approach is a good excuse for first-class hoofery: Creighton is no slouch in the tapping department, and choreographer Joshua Bergasse lends classic Broadway finesse to the dance numbers. But the script hews closely to known facts and over-relies on Creighton’s winning Cagney impression. And once Cagney runs out of movies, the production abruptly runs out of steam. After all, gangsters don’t retire.