Tough Guys Do Dance

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The cast of Cagney from left above: Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Robert Creighton, Ellen Zolezzi and Bruce Sabath. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Arguably one of the greatest song and dance men to come out of Hollywood, James Cagney left behind a legacy that included three Academy Award nods, one win, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was considered by storied director Orson Welles to be, “…maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera.” Thanks to the Off-Broadway musical Cagney, the late Oscar-winning thespian’s memory is being kept alive at Manhattan’s Westside Theatre. Credit lead and show cocreator Robert Creighton and theater producer Riki Kane Larimer for spearheading a monument to this Tinseltown legend via this production that bears his name.

With a book written by Canadian writer Peter Colley, music and lyrics by Creighton and Christopher McGovern and direction by Bill Castellino, Cagney seamlessly weaves songs from theater legend George M. Cohan and original material into a six-person production that makes great use of the intimate confines of the 270-seat Westside Theatre. Props are effortlessly swapped on and off the stage for settings ranging from Hollywood soundstages and the site of the 1977 Screen Actors Guild Awards to a Hell’s Kitchen apartment and the Keith Music Theatre on West 81st Street, all while telling the story of the iconoclastic title character. It’s the culmination of a dream that Creighton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late actor, first embraced as a mid-1990s, second-year acting student. 

“I was in acting school and a teacher said that I reminded him of Jimmy Cagney, between my energy and the fact that I like tap dancing. I’d just started tap dancing late—I was 20. [That observation started my fixation with] watching Cagney films and becoming very obsessed with him on screen. As an acting student, I was really into my craft and I felt like he was really ahead of his time,” Creighton says. “There was never a false word out of his mouth and he was in these stylized films that always [rang] true. About a year out of acting school, I was already in this Cagney zone, learning about him and what an amazing guy he was and then [I found out] his estate was trying to do a play about his life.”

For the next decade and a half, Creighton scrambled to realize this Cagney quest, while working his way up to Broadway, eventually landing roles in The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Chicago, Anything Goes, Chitty Chitty Bang Band and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In meeting Colley and McGovern along the way, Creighton created an early version of Cagney that played down in Florida thanks to theater impresario Lynette Barkley. The show popped up on Larimer’s radar around this time and she was immediately smitten by the subject matter and presentation.

“I’m having dinner with my friend Larry Topel, who is a producer and a real curmudgeon. He doesn’t like anything and he hates everything. He said he saw something in Florida that was so great—singing and dancing with great music. A lot of it is original, but a lot of it is patriotic music in the shape of George M. Cohan,” Larimer recalls. “I went to rehearsal, met [director] Bill Castellino right away. I knew before I saw it that I was going to love it, but then I loved it even more once I saw it. I met Bobby Creighton who to me, is such a charming and personable actor. Those little gestures and mannerisms, the twinkle in his eye—his whole style is just so fresh and so adorable. But it’s not just him—I fell in love with the whole cast.”

Bruce Sabath playing late Warner Brothers Studio head Jack L. Warner as Danette Holden, as harried assistant, Jane, looks on.
Bruce Sabath playing late Warner Brothers Studio head Jack L. Warner as Danette Holden, as harried assistant, Jane, looks on. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

For Larimer, whose background is in advertising and has only been plunging this deeply into Broadway and Off-Broadway since the 2014 death of her husband, Robert, it’s been an invigorating and challenging experience. Despite being a major investor in Gigi and On the Town along with having stakes in Dear Evan Hansen and Pierre, Natasha and the Comet of 1812, Cagney is the first show where she’s been the lead producer. Early instincts about the show’s viability were vindicated via an earlier sold-out five-week stand at the York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church that shattered the nonprofit theater’s box office record. While one of the largest challenges was securing the rights to the Cohan material, keeping 270 seats full for eight shows a week is an ever-present factor that she, Creighton and everyone involved with Cagney have been able to do.

Larimer admits a highly effective digital marketing campaign and social media outreach have proven to be very successful, along with substantial word-of-mouth (“…the most important kind of advertising no matter how big your budget is”). So while the siren song of Broadway beckons, Larimer is weighing her options.

“I never realized how important the right venue is for a show. It has to be right economically and fit the feeling of whatever it is that you’re doing,” she explains. “If and when we take Cagney on the road [or to Broadway], I really would not allow this to play in a massive theater with 2,000 people. It’s too intimate a production.”

Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton dance in unison Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton dance in unison. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

For now, all-age audiences are making the pilgrimage to the Westside Theatre for this show about a tap-dancing tough guy who passed away three-plus decades ago. While the idea of a show centering on a Golden Age Silver Screen icon may seem odd in a time when most young people know Steve McQueen as the British director of 12 Years a Slave and not the late 1960s-70s American screen idol, Cagney’s appeal doesn’t surprise Creighton.

“Everyone walks out happy, because they’re uplifted by the show. This is a guy who triumphed and even in this day and age, finishing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and that joyous celebration at the end becomes a very emotional experience for people,” he says. “I think anyone of any age that comes is entertained on that showbiz level.”

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