‘New York, New York’: Come For The Songs, Everything Else Is A Mess

This show—questionably claiming to be inspired by Martin Scorsese's 1977 movie—piles up a tidal wave of old John Kander and Fred Ebb songs worthy of applause. But the rest of the evening is of a hike through quicksand in snow shoes.

The company of ‘New York, New York.’ Emilio Madrid

New York, New York | 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. | St. James Theatre | 246 W 44th St | (888) 985-9421

Any Broadway musical with a score by the ace songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb sounds like a good idea to me. With the plethora of ugly new scores plaguing what’s become of the theater and third-rate jukebox musicals that appeal to kids and rock and roll enthusiasts who wouldn’t know a show tune with originality and imagination if it fell out of a karaoke bar and hit them in the center of the head, we don’t hear much to write home about any more. So revivals and regional tours of old Kander and Ebb shows such as Cabaret, Woman of the Year, Zorba the Greek and Chicago (now the longest-running American musical in history) are welcome escapes from mediocrity. 

Which brings us to New York, New York. It (questionably) claims to be “inspired” by Martin Scorsese’s 1977 movie with Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, though it has nothing whatsoever to do with that film except the rousing title tune, made famous by both Liza and Frank Sinatra, and the equally show-stopping “But the World Goes Round.” Everything else forms a tidal wave of musical numbers plucked from 15 old scores partnered by Mr. Ebb, who died in 2004, and Mr. Kander, who is still writing profusely at age 96—plus a few new songs with lyrics by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Fortunately, the songs, which provide most of the entertainment value, are superior, performed to perfection, and well worth the applause they generate. Everyone sings, including the cleaning lady.

The rest of the evening at the St. James Theatre is something of a hike through quicksand in snow shoes. The fault lies in an astonishingly boring, overstuffed book by David Thompson and Sharon Washington set in postwar Manhattan for no discernible reason other than to give scenic designer Beowulf Boritt a chance to fill the stage with architecturally detailed bridges and buildings that look more like the 19th century Industrial Revolution in Sweeney Todd  than New York in the 1940s. Against massive suggestions of everything from the Automat to Central Park, the sets are impressive, but there’s so much to look at and so many production numbers that the show wears you out before you even get to the intermission.

The direction and choreography are by Susan Stroman, which means whenever things get dull, the tedium is relieved by clever dance moves and an abundance of props. (In every Susan Stroman show, you can always expect a few brooms, mops, and over-endowed appliances.) Miss Uzele and Mr. Colto have powerful voices that pound some life into cardboard characters that are never fully developed, but their romantic charisma is dead on arrival. Onscreen, Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy was a dangerous, egotistical saxophone player and Liza Minnelli’s Francine was an ambitious victim who worked her way up from chick singer to rising star, both roles based on Doris Day’s early life married to an abusive musician. In the new Broadway show, the only thing that works its way up is the jazz band that blows a gasket accompanying Anna Uzele in the finale, bringing the audience to its feet as they belt out the title song.

I’m sorry to say there’s only the bare threads of  a plot to cover two years in the lives of a group of newly arrived “nobodies” struggling tediously with long-term hopes of becoming “somebodies.” The show is overpopulated by characters who learn by trial and error that New York, New York is a major social experiment in the guise of a melting pot where everyone succeeds (“If you can make it there,  you’ll make it anywhere”). Nothing bad ever happens to a jazz pianist named Jimmy (Colton Ryan) who is so desperate for work he’ll “even play Jersey,” or a singer named Francine (Anna Uzele) who waits tables, or a trumpet player named Tommy who is stuck in a restaurant kitchen, as well as countless others, including a Jewish concert violinist (Oliver Prose) who dreams of playing Carnegie Hall but wastes an inordinate amount of time falling for his trainer, a Cuban drummer named Mateo (Angel Segala) whose stories pass the time without impact, a hopeful prizefighter, and the usual bevy of curvy chorus girls. The goal is to present all the different pieces that make up a person’s identity while connecting the dots in the fluent, commonly interactive yet always challenging world of New York, New York. What you get instead is a mess that is just a few minutes short of three hours long. An enjoyable mess, to be sure, but a sprawling, disjointed, unfocused mess nonetheless.  

Kander and Ebb deserve so much more. 

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    ‘New York, New York’: Come For The Songs, Everything Else Is A Mess