‘New York, New York’ Broadway Review: Kander & Ebb Musical Wakes Up Late For A City That Doesn’t Sleep
Imagine a New York where construction workers tap dance on steel girders high above the city, sorta like that famous photograph you’ve seen a million times, and where kindly landladies who once played Carnegie Hall might tutor a young Holocaust refugee to a Julliard scholarship, and breezy jam sessions do away with generations of friction between races, genders and sexual identities. You’d go there, right?
Well, you can. New York, New York, the new(ish) Kander & Ebb musical, opens tonight at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. But be warned: Even the rosiest-hued urban utopia can get a bit tiresome when it’s this overstuffed with good intentions.
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Inspired, at least in name, by Martin Scorsese’s 1977 movie starring Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli, New York, New York is less an adaptation than it is a John Kander & Fred Ebb jukebox musical: In addition to the two very famous songs from the film – “But The World Goes ‘Round” and, of course, the title number – the Broadway production includes songs from the duo’s Golden Gate, The Rink, The Act, the unproduced Wait For Me, World, and even Funny Lady. (Lyricist Ebb died in 2004; Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda has stepped in to contribute additional lyrics.)
With a pedigree like that – and toss in Susan Stroman, as fine a director-choreographer as Broadway knows, Beowulf Boritt’s dependably sumptuous sets and a costume design by Donna Zakowska to rival her work on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – New York, New York can’t possibly be less than watchable.
But it should be so much more. That it is not falls largely to the predictable, cliche-loaded book by David Thompson and Sharon Washington.
The show opens as you might expect: A construction worker yells a mildly obscene expression about just how much he loves the city, Times Square-style marquee lights blaze and a colorfully costumed cross-section of harried urbanites stride with purpose across the stage, busying themselves with getting from here to there and performing a stage musical shorthand for hustle, bustle and metropolitan joie de vivre.
The year is 1946, and there’s plenty of joie to go along with all this post-war vivreing. As New Yorkers regain their footing and summon all the necessary fuhgeddaboudit moxie to build new dreams, a group of ever-so-diverse characters come together to, what else, make song and find, as one character repeatedly puts it, “music, money, love.” Not necessarily in that order.
Banding together in those pursuits – how they meet isn’t particularly important – are Jimmy Doyle (Colton Ryan), a white New Yorker of Irish heritage, who plays piano and drinks a lot; Francine Evans (Anna Uzele), a young Black woman who sings and carries a suitcase to signal her recent arrival in the big city; Jesse Webb (John Clay III), a Black trumpet player struggling to make sense of post-war life; Mateo Diaz (Angel Sigala), recently arrived from Cuba, a percussionist and what we would now call binary; Alex Mann (Oliver Prose), a young Jewish violinist and refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland (his instrument bears, inexplicably, a tell-tale yellow star).
That’s just for starters. There’s a character with a Super Mario Italian accent, a lecherous British music producer and a dancer who wants to be (her words) “the Japanese Ginger Rogers.”
Most, not all, of the characters come with subplots, however thin: Jimmy, who, we’re told more than shown, has been a hot-tempered lush since his brother was killed in the war, is instantly smitten with Francine, soon winning her over despite her concerns about entering an interracial relationship.
“Perform? Together? A white Irish jazz musician and a Negro singer?,” a shocked Francine says to Jimmy early on. “What are you crazy? You want to start a riot?”
Responds Jimmy: “This isn’t Texas. This is New York!”
None of the subplots provide much drama on the way to the big 11 o’clock, start-spreading-the-news finale. Social issues are raised and dismissed, diversity is romanticized and trivialized, and New York City’s live-and-let-live ethos (“This is New York!”) is played for easy cheers.
Better-earned applause arrives with the musical performances. The two biggies, both performed by Uzele’s Francine, are pretty much foolproof, though the actor, so good as Catherine Parr in Six, takes a while to find her footing. Her rendition of “But The World Goes ‘Round” is solid enough, but she it’s not until the rousing “New York, New York” finale that she scorches.
If Francine delivers what the audience came for, New York, New York really belongs to Jimmy, and Ryan makes the most of it. Having ran off with Girl From The North Country with a gorgeous rendition of “I Want You,” the actor ably jumps from supporting player to leading man. His singing is a sly blend of classic Broadway and Sinatra swagger, and presciently hints at Chet Baker’s mannered cool. He lays righteous claim to two lesser-known entries from the Kander & Ebb catalogue – “A Quiet Thing” from Flora The Red Menace and “Sorry I Asked” from Liza Minnelli’s 1992 Radio City Music Hall show.
Among the rest of the cast, Skinner is, as always, a delight, and newcomers Prose and Sigala (as the refugees from, respectively, Poland and Cuba) manage to find their moments in a story more determined to check-mark issues than present well-drawn characters. New York, New York doesn’t exactly sleep, but it never fully wakes up either.
Title: New York, New York
Venue: Broadway’s St. James Theatre
Director & Choreographer: Susan Stroman
Book: David Thompson, with Sharon Washington
Music & Lyrics: John Kander & Fred Ebb (with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Principal Cast: Colton Ryan, Anna Uzele, Clyde Alves, John Clay III, Janet Dacal, Ben Davis, Oliver Prose, Angel Sigala, Emily Skinner
Running time: 2 hrs 45 min (including intermission)
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