by Brenda W. Clough
In January we spent a long weekend in New York City. I don’t do this often, and so I take care to do only things that I can’t do anywhere else. This is not the time to go and see Phantom or Wicked. There are too many shows in New York that may never leave the city.
The first show we took in, Cagney, was in previews when we saw it off-Broadway. It got good reviews, but it’ll probably never go on the road. The reason? The cast was too good, and the book was too big. Let me explain this!
We can admit that top-notch talent rises to New York City. If you can make it there, the song says, you can make it anywhere. The eight or nine actors in Cagney are possibly the best dancers I have seen anywhere. Robert Creighton, who wrote the music and stars in the title role, is perfect as James Cagney — he looks like him, talks and sings like him, is even close in height. Such talent is amazing, jawdropping. This is great — but it means that no one else is going to be able to do it.
Not perhaps insuperable you say. Look how many people have been able to play the role of Evita Peron, with that killer vocal range. But the other flaw is the book. This is fixable — I know how to fix it! — but I will lay long odds it won’t be fixed. As it stands the work is quite biographical, covering the arc of the actor’s life. And it’s too much — too long, too diverse. A musical can really only be about one thing, and this musical is about at least three. It’s weird, to see a work with so many superb qualities not quite jell on the stage. Could they bear it, to cut three or four of the dynamite production numbers in the cause of focus? This is where the multi-talented star probably is too close to the work to see it. Probably not — and the work is less, weighted down by too much good stuff. A warning to us all. Perhaps I should go and look at that novel again, and see if I can peel out 20 thousand words….