Pioneer Theatre’s “Cagney” will win you over with its scrappy charm

Sat Sep 21, 2019 at 10:29 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Robert Creighton stars in the title role of Cagney with Jessica Wockenfuss as his wife Willie at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: PTC

“How will I be remembered? … Will it only be a line I never said?” Robert Creighton, as James Cagney, sings midway through the second act of Cagney, the biographical musical that opened Friday night at Pioneer Memorial Theatre.

It’s true: The screen legend never said the line most associated with him, “You dirty rat!” (The actual line was “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!”) And Cagney’s frustration at being typecast as a gangster, when he himself despised bullies and itched to show off the full range of his skills, gives Cagney its central conflict.

Cagney is a musical in the classic mold, with book by Peter Colley and the bulk of its songs by Christopher McGovern, punctuated by some George M. Cohan standards. It’s a creative risk to sandwich original tunes among the Cohan songs everyone knows by heart, but McGovern and Creighton’s score includes some smart recurring motifs and uses reprises to make pointed comparisons between Cagney and Warner.

Of necessity, some of the dramatic events are telescoped and dramatic license is taken. (Cagney didn’t receive his subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee in the midst of filming Yankee Doodle Dandy, for example). But most of the script’s surprising revelations—such as Cagney’s fluency in Yiddish, his stage debut in drag, and his pushback against the once-common practice of filming with live ammunition—are true.

The action starts to drag a bit before intermission, but stick around: Cagney, like its namesake and the actor who plays him, will win you over with its scrappy charm. One of the don’t-miss moments is a delightful dance battle between Cagney and Bob Hope (played with endearing goofiness by Matt Crowle).

But Robert Creighton is the engine that drives Cagney. In addition to playing the title role and writing some of the songs, he devoted a decade to bringing the show to the stage. He’s an able actor and singer and a dynamo of a dancer. 

Darrin Baker plays his antagonist, studio despot Jack Warner, with such panache that it’s hard to dislike him.

Darrin Baker (top) portrays studio chief Jack Warner in Cagney. Photo: PTC

The other ten members of the cast shuffle nimbly among dozens of roles. Directed by Bill Castellino and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, they transform seamlessly into family members, Hollywood icons, screenwriters, construction workers, senators and whatever else the script requires. The singing and dancing are top-notch all around. Jessica Wockenfuss is especially winning as Willie, Cagney’s lifelong love. 

The show’s production values are solid. Projections designed by Brad Peterson bring James Noone’s set design to life. In one especially clever touch, a marquee atop the proscenium lets the audience know when and where the action is taking place at all times. (Though it took a while for the projections to come into focus opening night.) The period costumes by Gregory Gale are a visual treat. And the show’s musical director, keyboardist Doug Oberhamer, leads a snappy pit orchestra of seven Utah-based musicians.

In the end, it’s Cagney’s nemesis who reconciles the conflict between the fundamentally decent actor and the morally murky characters he so often portrayed. “If it wasn’t for Goliath, David is just some punk throwing rocks,” Warner says. “We always learned something about ourselves watching him.”

Pioneer Theatre Company’s season-opening production of Cagney continues through Oct. 5 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre at the University of Utah, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City; 801-581-6961 or

4 Responses to “Pioneer Theatre’s “Cagney” will win you over with its scrappy charm”

  1. Posted Sep 21, 2019 at 12:16 pm by Barbara Ormont

    Can not wait to see this wonderful production On Broadway!!!!

  2. Posted Sep 21, 2019 at 1:43 pm by Simon

    “Though it took a while for the projections to come into focus opening night.”

    That seemed on purpose to me – it became really sharp when the show started.

  3. Posted Sep 22, 2019 at 8:59 am by Ciji Ware

    My father wrote a novel that Cagney Productions purchased for the film Come, Fill the Cup and so I knew the Cagney clan and made it a point to see CAGNEY twice in NYC and absolutely loved it. It looks as if this newest production is even more elaborate and compelling…would love to see it in its latest incarnation. Robert Creighton is AMAZING as the Jim Cagney I knew…

  4. Posted Sep 26, 2019 at 6:48 am by Connie Venasky

    I saw Robert Creighton perform Cagney here in L.A. not long ago and if I could hop on a plane right now and go see it again, I would! I was so impressed and haven’t enjoyed a play that much, ever! I don’t think anyone could be better to play Cagney, he was perfect!! Loved this play and I hope I can see it again!

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