There’s a great new Broadway musical called “New York, New York,” It is based on the Martin Scorsese movie of the same title.
Both the movie and the show have main characters named Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans, both are set right after World War II, and both feature certain anthems composed by John Kander and Fred Ebb. You know, the ones whose first five notes are on the piano, are enough to automatically trigger the brain to fill in the rest.
And that title song alone, not the movie, is the true inspiration for the sprawling, surprisingly impractical and boring show that opened Wednesday night at St. James’ Theatre.
extrapolation from her words, “New York, New York,” Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, it is about the people in “tramp shoes”, the ones who “want to get up in the city that never sleeps”. Jimmy (Colton Ryan) and Francine (Anna Uzelle) are now rubbing elbows as characters that writer David Thompson dreamed up with Sharon Washington. They are musicians, singers, fighters and dreamers. And, alas, no one makes much of an impression, because they are mired in this mire of good feelings and noisy civic encouragement.
As the different story lines move toward their inevitable intersection, any sign of wrinkle or warp has been smoothed out. The most notable victims are the re-imagined Jimmy and Francine, flattened into cardboard figures. Portrayed by Robert De Niro, Jimmy was an obnoxious, abusive, and narcissistic jerk to a sax player who fell in love with Liza Minnelli’s Francine, a passionate singer who made her way from canary in big bands to solo star; Their volatile relationship won’t pass the stink test with the 2023 audience.
New Jimmy is just a slight annoyance graduating from good saxophonist to great multi-instrumentalist who is equally comfortable playing jazz with African American trumpeter Jesse (John Clay III) and Latin grooves with Cuban percussionist Mateo (Angel Sigala). The stories are outlined in broad strokes. For Jimmy to end up as a human bridge between the musical styles of Harlem and Spanish Harlem is quite an achievement for an Irish white-bread kid. (The Jewish violinist Oliver Nether plays is mostly on the sidelines.)
Meanwhile, Francine emerges as a spunky and powerful free spirit plugged into a 21st century outlet. A black woman, she navigates the treacherous waters of the music scene with relative ease, and setbacks seem to wash over her.
Ryan (“Girl From the North Country,” Connor in “Dear Evan Hansen”) and Uzele (“Once on This Island,” Catherine Parr in “Six”) are technically good, but they don’t fill in the characters drawn as sketches. Which prompts Francine and Jamie nor the sexual attraction between them.
This creates a central void that further constrains the polished book – friction fueling the imagination.
And if anyone knows that, it’s John Kander. An effective blend of seduction, unabashed romance, and biting sarcasm has set Kander and Ebb apart on Broadway, from “Cabaret” to “Chicago” to their former hit collaboration with Stroman, “The Scottsboro Boys.”
The score for “New York, New York” combines new songs that Kander wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda, such as “Music, Money, Love,” with older songs set to lyrics by Ibe. Of these, the most famous (You Know What and “But the World Goes Round”) were pulled from a Scorsese film, while others were repurposed, such as “A Quiet Thing” from the 1965 hit “Flora the Red Menace,” and “Flora the Red Menace.” Marry Me” from “The Ring” (1984).
But no matter when they were written or who they were written with, a lot of the songs lack Kander and Ebb’s signature jagged edge. This has to do in part with Sam Davis’ arrangements and music direction, which suffer from a deficit of oomph and thus reinforce the show’s asexuality – there’s no pulse when there’s no swing. (Kander and Epp were able to pull this off more than most Broadway creators: Just listen for, say, the imaginative drive “Gimme Love” From “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”)
The rah-rah tone of the new show eventually gets psychedelic. Which is all the more frustrating because the oxymoron is crammed into the title song, which alludes to the city’s mercurial mood. “If I could get there / I’d make it anywhere” – We’re in a Tough City – is followed by “It’s up to you / New York, New York”, denying the singer agency. But the show follows the triumphant paradigm set by Frank Sinatra rather than the more ambiguous paradigm imparted by Minnelli. In this rose-tinted vision, trials are temporary, everyone gets along with them, and no one gets on New York’s bad side.
Stroman has a rare affinity for classic Broadway showmanship, as evidenced by her work in “Crazy for You” and “The Producers,” but she can also veer toward the radical style, as in “The Scottsboro Boys.”
Here, flashes of inspiration are few and far between. Highlights are the tap number displayed on high beams, with a couple inscribed with “JK 3181927” and “FE 481928″—Kander and Epp’s birthdates, and two Easter eggs lurking in the vibrant Beowulf Poret collection, which is dominated by escapes from tall fire. The magic moment known as Manhattanhenge It was conjured up with great help from lighting designer Ken Billington. And there is, as always, the visceral thrill of watching a big band take to the stage, when Jimmy’s combo kicks off the title song at the end.
There isn’t much to remember from a show that clocks close to three hours and has such huge potential. Jesse once said, “You can be anyone here, do anything here.”
If only “New York, New York” interpreted that line not as reassurance, but as a challenge to which we must dare.
New York, New York
at St. James Theatre, Manhattan; newyorknewyorkbroadway.com. Show duration: 2 hours and 40 minutes.
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