Reviews

New York, New York ***

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 30, 2023: Nineteen forty-six may seem like a long, long time ago, but there are still enough of us New Yorkers out there to feel a strong pull of nostalgia in the face of books, movies, and shows embedded in the city’s life during WWII, which ended in 1945, and immediately after, especially when show business is evoked. Broadway musicals have not stopped tapping into this vein, as witness 2017’s Bandstand, a flop not entirely unlike the newest example,New York, New York, at the St. James Theatre, which stood on the same spot eight decades ago as it does today.

Jim Borstelmann.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 30, 2023: Nineteen forty-six may seem like a long, long time ago, but there are still enough of us New Yorkers out there to feel a strong pull of nostalgia in the face of books, movies, and shows embedded in the city’s life during WWII, which ended in 1945, and immediately after, especially when show business is evoked. Broadway musicals have not stopped tapping into this vein, as witness 2017’s Bandstand, a flop not entirely unlike the newest example,New York, New York, at the St. James Theatre, which stood on the same spot eight decades ago as it does today.

A lot of money must have gone into this physically elaborate, but frequently disappointing, effort, a kind of sloppy wet kiss to the immediate postwar years of 1946-1947. Its main claim on our attention is a score composed of songs by the exceptionally productive team of John Kander, now 96, and the late Fred Ebb (ChicagoCabaret, and so many others). However, even with “additional lyrics” by wunderkind Lyn- Manuel Miranda, much of the score in this semi-jukebox musical, while pleasant enough, is second-tier Broadway fare. (The play list and who wrote what is appended below.) 

Anna Uzele & Colton Ryan.

Many of the songs—all of them well presented—will be familiar mainly to musical theatre buffs, while the small number of popular favorites or “standards,” including “But the World Goes Round” and the always rousing title song (here saved until the glorious finale), are insufficient to make one want to keep putting another nickel in the nickelodeon. Few of the numbers convey the sounds of mid-40s pop standards, and, despite some vivid Latin rhythms, boogie-woogie never makes the grade.

Loosely based on the not especially distinguished 1977 Martin Scorcese movie of the same name starring Robert De Niro as volatile Irish-American saxophonist Jimmy Doyle, and Liza Minelli as earnestly ambitious songstress Francine Evans, recently arrived in the Big Apple from small-town USA. The core story of their boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl romance, mixed with their separate paths to success, differs chiefly from the film by making Francine (Anna Uzele, Six) African-American. This allows for some mild consideration of contemporary racial attitudes, as when Jimmy (Colton Ryan, Girl from the North Country), here a pianist-singer, argues against Francine going on the road because of the racism she’s bound to confront. In general, the racial angle never goes beyond paint-by-numbers reductionism.

John Clay III and Company.

The show thus remains stage-bound, largely because of a cliché-riddled book by David Thompson and Sharon Washington that tries to make its old-fashioned story about talented musical strivers woke by emphasizing ethnic diversity, although never rising above superficiality or stereotypes. Dissipating the focus are multiple subplots involving a swishy Cuban immigrant singer-dancer-bongo player, Mateo Diaz (Angel Sigala, in his Broadway debut), whose ambitions are blocked by his protective mother, Sofia (Janet Dacal, Prince of Broadway), and macho father (Leo Moctezuma); Black trumpeter Jesse Webb (John Clay III, Choir Boy), a returning veteran forced, despite his service, to work in a restaurant kitchen; young Polish-Jewish refugee, Alex Mann (Oliver Prose, in his Broadway debut), a violin prodigy (with a yellow star of David on his instrument) who convinces the former concert violinist Madame Veltri (Emily Skinner, Side Show) to take him under her wing; and so on.

The central romantic-aspirational plot concerning the love and marriage of Jimmy and Francine, each of whom finds eventual success, gets no deeper than a rupture caused by Jimmy’s jealousy of the suave British producer, Gordon Kendrick (Ben Davis, Dear Evan Hansen), who helps Francine become a star. The predictable developments are strung together with songs whose lyrics bear some basic relationship to the plot points, but never to the degree that songs explicitly created to serve a particular narrative and character arcs do in conventional musicals. 

Company of New York, New York.

Given such lackluster material to sustain over a way-too-long two hours and 45 minutes, we must be satisfied with Beowulf Boritt’s imposing sets, frequently composed of huge skeletal structures that slide into place to suggest a canyon of New York dwellings piled one on the other, backed by numerous projections of local scenic images, such as the familiar ones of a soaring East River bridge or the Chrysler Building. At one point, the sunset/sunrise phenomenon dubbed “Manhattanhenge” in 1997 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is replicated, with the auditorium slowly baked in golden light, even though few made much of it in the 1940s. Iconic locales like Times Square and Grand Central Station are present, of course, all brilliantly lit by Broadway master Ken Billington. A warehouse-load of colorful period costumes designed by Donna Zakowska offers a vivid fashion show, sometimes looking far more glamorously stylish than the pocketbooks of the female characters could reasonably afford; at least the fashions offer a distraction from the libretto.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman uses nearly every trick in her extensive staging and choreography trunks to exploit the singing, dancing, and acting (or, too often, overacting) of more than two dozen performers in a wide variety of routines. A rainy scene makes vivid use of colorful umbrellas, while a spectacular episode on the steel framework of a skyscraper—à la those famous photos of workers at ease on the girders of the Empire State Building—has Jimmy’s friend Tommy Caggiano (Clyde Alves) lead the ensemble in some tricky acrobatic steps. Latin dance gets its due but, unlike Bandstand, jitterbugging gets swept under a rug rather than cutting it. 

Company of New York, New York.

Ms. Stroman is rarely content to let one scene be followed by another without inserting at least a few moments of choreographic activity in between. Her finale, for which the entire orchestra pit rises to stage level with the musicians wearing period garb, brings the show to a rip-roaring conclusion, with the audience joyfully singing along (and recording it on their cameras) to Kander and Ebb’s fabulous paean to the “city that never sleeps.”

All the principals carry out their duties with dynamic versatility. Mr. Ryan (who should have his often unruly hair styled in a more period-appropriate way) has a boyish face that makes him look more like a mischievous Dead End kid than a leading man. He can, however, sing, dance, and play a mean piano (not to mention a tuba and various string and wind instruments). The beautiful Ms. Uzele, a star-in-the-making, sings with tear-the-house-down charisma; I look forward to seeing her in a role with more dimension. Broadway veteran Ms. Skinner, has the voice of an angel, making an especially deep impression on my plus-one, herself an experienced Broadway musical performer (including Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman).

Janet Dacal & Angel Sigala.

Which brings me full circle to us old-timers who can still actually recall moments from the New York theatre during the period of this show’s story. I saw my first Broadway show, Dark of the Moon, in 1945, but even more to the point, in 1946, my plus-one, Mimi Turque Marre (then known as Mimi Strongin), auditioned (actually, interviewed) for Rouben Mamoulian, director of the original Carousel, on the St. James stage, where New York, New York is playing; she was six. When Carousel opened at the Majestic, across the street, Mimi was in the cast; apart from the 97-year-old Bambi Linn, she’s probably the sole living member of that historic company. How’s that for a New York, New York, show biz story?

Playlist:

MUSIC and LYRICS by JOHN KANDER and LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA
“Better Than Before”
“Can You Hear Me”
“Cheering for Me Now”
“Gold”
“Light”
“Music, Money, Love”
“My Own Music”

MUSIC and LYRICS by JOHN KANDER
“A Major Chord”
“A Quell’ Amor”
“San Juan Supper Club”

MUSIC by JOHN KANDER
“Ebb and Flow”
“New York at Christmas”
“New York in the Morning”
“New York at Night”
“New York Concerto”
“New York in Summer”
“New York in the Rain”
“New York in the Snow”
“Streets of New York”

MUSIC and LYRICS by JOHN KANDER, FRED EBB and LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

“Along Comes Love”

MUSIC and LYRICS by JOHN KANDER and FRED EBB

“A Simple Thing Like That”
“I Love Music”
“I’m What’s Happening Now”
“Wine and Peaches”

MUSIC and LYRICS by JOHN KANDER and FRED EBB – SONGBOOK

“A Quiet Thing”
“But the World Goes ‘Round”
“Happy Endings”
“Let’s Hear it for Me”
“Marry Me”
“New York, New York”+
“One of the Smart Ones”
“Sorry I Asked”

New York, New York
St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th Street, NYC
Open run
Photography: Paul Kolnik

Oliver Prose & Emily Skinner.