In the endless development process for new musicals — workshops, staged readings, first, second and third productions — it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate world premieres of in-progress works like Florida Stage’s debut of “Cagney.” Almost any show that has reached the premiere stage can legitimately be described as promising, prompting speculation about its commercial legs. So it is with this earnest, energetic bio-musical, which has some crowd-pleasing embryonic pleasures and a breakout performance by Robert Creighton as the scrappy but sensitive hoofer who fought the tough-guy straitjacket for much of his life.
Peter Colley’s sketchy but adequate book and the tuneful if undistinguished original score by Creighton and Christopher McGovern provide a study framework. But they suffer from the curse of most full-scale biographical plays (let alone the abbreviated schematics of musicals) — the perfunctory “and-then” structure, ticking off the highlights of a celebrated life.
So don’t go expecting an incisive, enthralling character study. This is more “George M!” than “Evita.” Although the show touches on Cagney’s angst (a brush with HUAC, a stormy relationship with studio head Jack Warner), “Cagney” is a 1930s Warner Brothers movie musical — vellum-thin escapist entertainment for a stressed-out world battling economic depression.
The evening only comes into its own with showstoppers that have nothing to do with Cagney the person: a U.S.O. show replete with George M. Cohan songs; the inevitable “Give My Regards to Broadway”; a tap-dancing duel from “The Seven Little Foys” with Joel Newsome. These are the pure hallelujah moments.
Director Bill Castellino stages the musical numbers solidly although his book scenes are unconvincing. McGovern skillfully guides the five-piece band through his own deft arrangements. Erin Amico’s costumes evoke the black-and-white world of film with choice splashes of color, and Jeff Shade creates rousing routines in Cagney’s idiosyncratic dance style.
The five supporting actors are all serviceable, but the skyrocket work comes from Creighton, currently on Broadway hiatus from playing Chef Louis in “The Little Mermaid.” With more work, “Cagney” clearly has a future in regional theaters and perhaps Off Broadway. But even at this stage it’s worthwhile just to see this stocky firecracker smolder with intensity and charisma.