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The New Yorkers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 25, 2017

Kevin Chamberlin with Tam Mutu, Scarlett Strallen,
Byron Jennings, and Arnie Burton
Photo by Joan Marcus

The New Yorkers undoubtedly isn't the only ancient musical that should come with a Do Not Resuscitate warning, but it's one of the few that's demonstrated why as part of the City Center Encores! series. What exactly this new mounting of the 1930 title is, beyond a hopelessly stitched-together amalgam of content and intent, I don't know. The only thing more difficult to discern is what it's supposed to be.

Before trying to figure that out, let's get the basics out of the way. The Encores! Orchestra, playing period-hugging new orchestrations by Josh Clayton and Larry Moore under the baton of Rob Berman (who also crafted the dance and vocal arrangements), sounds excellent as usual, lush and brassy. The physical production (nightclub-inspired revue sets by Allen Moyer, glittery costumes by Alejo Vietti, splashy lights by Ken Billington) are top-notch for the project. The choreography by Chris Bailey is appropriately dopey, tap-heavy, and elegant by turns. And director John Rando does everything he possibly can to glue the proceedings together.

Alas, holding up a thimble in an attempt to capture a tidal wave ain't gonna do much good. In this form, this property can't be contained, and probably doesn't want to be. It wants to exist, have fun, and inspire fun in those who watch it, as though a theatrical entertainment just inside the threshold of the Great Depression could and should offer no more to (and ask no more of) its audiences. That's about all that musicals of that era aspired to; remember, Show Boat at that point was the exception, not the rule (and even that now-classic, in its original form, wasn't that far removed from vaudeville).

So The New Yorkers is packed with... stuff. Based on a story by E. Ray Goetz and celebrated cartoonist Peter Arno, it contains plenty of good-natured ribbing of the then-five-year-old magazine with the similar title (and reflecting some of its more famous bits and quips). Thin snatches of a book (by Herbert Fields) alternately dose out eye-rolling puns and other quick-hit humor, in between half-nods toward a plot about a high-society dame falling in with a down-and-dirty speakeasy owner and... uh... sturgeon bootlegger? There are self-written specialties for both the popular singing group Waring's Pennsylvanians and bona fide star Jimmy Durante. And, most notably, the rest of the score was composed by the up-and-coming, but already-vivacious, Cole Porter.

None of this naturally fits together, but back then it didn't need to—it only needed to make people happy for long enough. (To not demand a refund, one suspects.) That's harder to pull off today, in no small part because within the next decade or so shows became overall more mature, and proved we could have a fine time and not have to feel guilty the next morning. So if The New Yorkers is literally unrevivable (both theatrically and somatically) that doesn't mean that Encores! couldn't wring the crazy-quilt songs for all the joy they possess. And, as it introduced a few legitimate Porter treasures like "Love for Sale" and "I Happen to Like New York," there must be some to wring.

Kevin Chamberlin with Clyde Alves and Jeffrey Schecter
Photo by Joan Marcus

Except that doesn't happen. Could it have? Its materials were in tatters, and in many cases had vanished altogether, so it had to be reconstructed, however imperfectly, to get it to its wobbly feet for two and a half hours. But could it ever do more than stand there and sway? We, our society, and the art have grown beyond where Fields, Porter, and their collaborators aimed. With much of the script, score, and their undocumented connecting tissue missing or unusable, whatever soul the evening had once upon a time has been necessarily compromised. And under normal circumstances, these two strikes would be dangerous enough.

But the third comes from the decision to interpolate other Porter into the mix—and not exactly obscure Porter, either. Many theatre folk will recognize "You've Got That Thing" (Fifty Million Frenchmen, 1929), "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" (Leave It to Me!, 1938), and "Let's Not Talk About Love" (Let's Face It!, 1941). But everyone knows "Night and Day" (Gay Divorce, 1932). Because of these numbers' relative familiarity and detectable difference in style, the whole enterprise becomes a jukebox musical, which only makes it tougher to appraise on its own merits. If it actually had any, or if there were enough remnants to judge, wouldn't it have been left alone?

Meddling has its place, even at Encores!; one of the choicest moments of the series was 2004's Pardon My English, which felt like it embodied that 1933 Gershwin outing despite having an entirely new book based on microscopic fragments of the long-lost one from (well, what do you know?) Fields. But that one convinced us that the bonkers attitude and the irreverence were worth preserving. That's not the case with Jack Viertel's cluttered "concert adaptation" here, which seeks to neither preserve nor improve. If either were the case, we wouldn't need "Night and Day"—we'd be too busy buzzing with delight at all the great Fields jokes and Porter tunes we were discovering. This is one of those cases where "great" just doesn't apply, before or after the "fixing."

The cast is not at fault, per se, though few of them possess either the vocal or the personality chops to sell any of this as it was likely intended. Scarlett Strallen, as the society dame with the best songs ("Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love," "Night and Day," "I Happen to Like New York"), best blends the zany and the sincere. But Byron Jennings and Ruth Williamson get a lot of mileage out of her stuffy, duel-adultery-wielding parents, and Todd Buonopane focuses his silliness as a put-upon, food-loving cuckold. Eddie Korbich and Arnie Burton, playing a series of shambolic, one-joke characters, gild their suffocating fluff as much as they can. Cyrille Aimée sings "Love for Sale" and "Let's Fly Away" with plush passion (if self-indulgent jazz mannerisms), but good luck determining what her non-character has to do with anything. The other leads, including Mylinda Hull, Robyn Hurder, Tam Mutu, and Tyler Lansing Weaks, succeed, though utterly without sparks.

The most unenviable job falls to Kevin Chamberlin, who's cast as Jimmy Durante. I mean, I guess it's technically a character (Jimmie Deegan), but it's actually an excuse. For gags like "Wait ‘til you taste this intoxicant I just invented. It's two parts pepper vodka and one part Pepto-Bismol. It causes and cures heartburn at the same time." And "I laid 'em in the aisles! That's the only place I ever get to do it!" And "Do I know the Bronks? Certainly. I dated their daughter, Gladys Bronk." Chamberlin gets maximum non-Durante mileage from this nonsense—I'm not sure who could do it better—but it's still nonsense. And, despite game efforts, without Durante's trademark gravelly nasality he can't find the right sound or comedic approach for Jimmie's trio of sprechstimme showstoppers.

These include the Act One finale, "Wood." Which is about wood. No, really. It's an anthem about wood. The stuff that comes from trees. It contains such insights as "Is warm and alive to the touch—the handle of a tool, the arm of a chair" and "Is stronger pound for pound than any other material and can be carved like a turkey," and "climaxes" with the cast creating a ten-foot-high pile of wooden objects onstage. No, really. "This is how the first act ended in 1930, folks!" Chamberlin shouts as he makes his final exit before intermission. "Go figure."

Yes, indeed. Nothing makes it more clear that, whatever else it is, The New Yorkers was never meant for us.

The New Yorkers
Through March 26
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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