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Theatre in Review: New York, New York (St. James Theatre)

Anna Uzele, Colton Ryan. Photo: Paul Kolnik

From its opening moment, when a dazzling electric sign fires up, announcing the show's title, New York, New York unrolls one sensational staging moment after another. A gang of construction workers taps out a routine on the girders of an unfinished building. A thunderstorm sends umbrellas flying, balletically, above their owners' heads. A streetside marriage proposal turns into a raucous neighborhood jamboree with a chorus of kibitzers on tenement fire escapes. A sleepy supper club is transformed, thanks to a little Latin rhythm, into a scorching atmosphere of jazz, color, and dance. A gaggle of pedestrians, stopped cold by a gorgeous sunset, watches the light build until it bathes the auditorium in its roseate glow. In one of the nerviest bits, a scene in a Broadway musical suddenly changes perspective, slipping inside the head of a single performer and achieving a startling reverse-angle view of the audience and footlights. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman, one of Broadway's best, is on fire here.

Despite these and other tingly moments, however New York, New York remains a show in search of an organizing principle, a series of production numbers and scenic coups untethered to a compelling plot and engaging characters. The show is predicated on the notion that, in 1946, it is morning in Manhattan, a haven for young comers in search of fame, money, and love. (As the song says, if you can make it there...) But David Thompson and Sharon Washington's book is populated by a colorless army of strivers defined only by race or ethnicity and musical instrument. They include the newly demobilized Black soldier Jesse Webb (John Clay, III), a trumpeter who won't go back to prewar racial restrictions; Alex Mann (Oliver Prose), a Polish Jew and violin virtuoso whose family was wiped out at Treblinka; and Mateo Diaz (Angel Sigala), a Cuban furniture mover and genius on the drumkit. (He's also gay, but nobody wants to talk about that.) They're eager, ambitious, and thoroughly underwritten, a trio of big dreamers surprisingly lacking in character detail.

Most of the time, they get crowded out by the romantic leads, Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans, their character names lifted from Martin Scorsese's similarly named film. The properties can be considered third cousins, twice removed; the musical's Jimmy and Francine are light years from the temperamental, sharp-elbowed lovers played by Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli on screen. They are also problematically cast: Jimmy, supposedly a hard-drinking Irish-American punk with a knack for self-sabotage, is played by Colton Ryan, so youthful and fresh-faced that one suspects he couldn't handle a second Cherry Coke. Ryan has a nice offhand way with casually comic moments, and he charms in his ballads, most notably "Can You Hear Me?" (a tentative declaration of love in Grand Central Station's Whispering Galley) and a remarkably lovely handling of "A Quiet Thing." But they've sent a boy to do a man's job and the character's stated volatility is entirely missing.

Anna Uzele has plenty of presence, and an authoritative vocal style but, as written, Francine is dismayingly bland -- all we know is that she is a Black emigrant from Philly bent on become a singing star -- and neither she nor Ryan are well-equipped when the plot turns to their clashing ambitions. It doesn't help that Jimmy and Francine are enmeshed in a plot straight out of the B picture unit on the Warner lot: His dream of professional success (as a bandleader) and personal happiness (with Francine) is threatened when she gets taken up by Gordon Kendrick (Ben Davis), an oleaginous British producer offering champagne, pretty clothes, and a plush casting couch. Uzele gets a big hand with her straightforward, rafter-rattling rendition of "But the World Goes 'Round," although I missed Minnelli's version, driven by guts and nervous energy, in the film. But she sizzles in the title tune, given the big band treatment by orchestrators Sam Davis and Daryl Waters. (The score is a mélange of songs, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, used in the film; songs used or cut from other Kander-and-Ebb shows; and new items by Kander and Lin-Manuel Miranda.)

Scenic/projection designer Beowulf Boritt and his co-projection designer Christopher Ash take the audience on the town for a guided tour of cramped apartments, theatrical booking offices, chic watering holes, radio stations, and tenement-crowded streets, as well as Central Park and the pre-war Penn Station. Many of the monotone images have the quality of Berenice Abbott photos; others recall the hand-colored postcards of another era. (The intermission slide show -- of Horn & Hardart, the old Greyhound bus station, and a row of brownstones, among others -- is reason enough to stay in your seat. Ken Billington's lighting fills out each set with gorgeous splashes of color; he also paces the dance numbers with effortless precision. Donna Zakowska's costumes range from haute couture to waitress uniforms, all beautifully and accurately rendered. Kai Harada's sound design maintains a high level of intelligibility throughout, in addition to effects like ship's horns, trains, and subways. Scene for scene, this is the most outstandingly designed show to open on Broadway this season.

Any show benefits from the presence of Emily Skinner, here cast as a music teacher, her soldier son missing in action, who coaches Alex for his Juilliard audition. Also livening up things are Clyde Alves as Jimmy's streetwise best friend and Janet Dacal as Mateo's disapproving-but-loving mother. Because New York, New York is the work of real craftspeople, the songs, pulled from many sources, don't have that oddly random feel found in so many jukebox musicals. And Stroman's staging counts as one of her best, whether drawing on a variety of dance styles or staging imaginative vignettes, for example, the saga of a charlady transformed into an opera diva in the twinkle of an eye.

But the action is top-heavy with ciphers, their only recognizable trait being a generalized desire to hit the big time. Things improve in the second act as the Jimmy -- Francine conflict heats up and Mateo squares off against his abusive father, at last generating some drama. It's also in the later scenes that the show most eloquently expresses its heart-on-sleeve affection for the city that never sleeps. Then again, that's the trouble with New York, New York: It's a civic valentine, a romance of the metropolis. The people in it are merely incidental. --David Barbour

(4 May 2023)

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