Now playing at Pioneer Theatre Company, an unassuming new musical feels like it’s trying to capture America itself. It’s not just the red, white and blue costumes. Cagney, which ran Off-Broadway in 2016, spans from New York to L.A., communist conspiracies to patriotic principles, Uncle Sam to Shirley Temple. It uses a distinctly American art form to tell a distinctly American story, in all its star-spangled contradictions.

Cagney
Robert Creighton (Cagney) and Matt Crowle (Bob Hope) in Cagney at Pioneer Theater Company. Photo provided by PTC

What: Cagney
Where: Pioneer Memorial Theatre, University of Utah Campus
When: Runs through Oct. 5, 2019
How: Tickets and info here.

The musical follows the life of James Cagney, outlining his rise from a poor Irish kid in Manhattan to one of the most distinctive stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In 1919, Cagney (Robert Creighton) auditions on a whim for a spot in the chorus of a vaudeville show. Soon, he is touring the country, performing with his new wife Willie (Jessica Wockenfuss), until he gets a fateful call from Hollywood. Cagney becomes one of film’s most reliable tough guys, but soon conflicts behind the scenes eclipse the drama on screen. Cagney spars with Jack Warner (Darrin Baker), the head of Warner Bros, over creative freedom and financial compensation.

The musical is anchored by an old-school star performance by Creighton, a quadruple threat. His acting capably recalls the real-life Cagney’s most famous moments, including this beautifully bizarre act of citrus violence. His singing voice was consistently lovely. His energetic dancing was the show’s real highlight ­— in one show stopping moment, Cagney has an extended tap dance battle with Bob Hope (Matt Crowle). Creighton even wrote some of the show’s score. (The music is a mix of classic songs and convincing pastiche from Creighton and Christopher McGovern.) Some people hog all the talent.

Cagney is a deeply nostalgic musical, and its pleasures are borrowed from bygone eras of both Broadway and Hollywood. The musical was well received by the heavily septuagenarian crowd, though anyone could appreciate Cagney’s simplicity and eagerness to please.

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