Review: Pioneer Theatre’s ‘Cagney’ offers strong performances, broad biography of Hollywood star

The cast of "Cagney." Photo: Pioneer Theatre

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Sept. 28, 2019 (Gephardt Daily) — The Broadway-bound musical “Cagney,” playing through Oct. 5 at Pioneer Theatre, has a lot to recommend it.

The 12-person cast is full of gifted and versatile actors/singer/dancers, some of whom already have strong Broadway credits. It’s a joy to watch the extra flair they put into each song and dance number.

But “Cagney” also has a few script elements that could be improved with a bit more tinkering before it heads east. This biographical musical on American actor James Cagney, whose career lasted more than six decades, at times seems over-long and under-focused.

Robert Creighton stars as Cagney, and also cowrote the music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern. The book is by Peter Colley.

Cagney is the fictionalized story of the scrappy star from Manhattan’s lower east side, born in 1899, drawn to Vaudeville, and active in movies between 1930 and 1984.

Actor James Cagney is show in this 1930 promotional photo from Warner Bros. Studios.

The musical attempts to cover Cagney’s career of more than six decades, and at times seems like it could use a little less breadth and a tad more depth.

But it does give the viewer a good grasp on who Cagney is remembered to be: an intense and insightful actor of great talent — too often typecast as a tough guy — and a man who would fight for fair treatment for himself and other actors, and for society’s underdogs.

“Cagney” offers a broad overview of a man many theater fans are far too young to remember. The older patrons who made up much of the audience at Pioneer Theatre seemed to appreciate the story.

Whether younger fans who embraced “Hamilton,” inspired by America’s tenth president, will follow suit, remains to be seen.

Jessica Wockenfuss as Willie and Robert Creighton as Cagney. Photo: Pioneer Theatre

The production values of Pioneer Theatre’s production are strong. Much of the show is told against projected backdrops, limiting the need for extensive set pieces and changes.

The costumes, by Gregory Gale, not only help to set the time period and define characters, but are fun to look at, and at times add to the humor of the show.

“Cagney” already has played Off-Broadway, where it won Creighton a 2016 Fred Astaire award for Outstanding Male Dancer Off-Broadway. “Cagney” also played in Southern California in 2017.

The Pioneer Theatre production, directed by Bill Castellino, is billed as newly expanded, and although “Cagney” could be improved with a little more tightening, the quality of the songs, dancing and acting still qualify it as a spectacular.

The show runs 2.5 hours including a 15 minute intermission. For more information on the theater or how to get tickets, click here.

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