Thursday, June 8, 2023

REVIEW: New York, New York

Review of the matinee performance on Sunday, June 4, 2023 at the St. James Theatre in New York City. Starring Colton Ryan, Anna Uzele, Clyde Alves, John Clay III, Janet Decal, Ben Davis, Oliver Prose, Angel Sigala and Wendi Bergamini. Book by David Thompson and Sharon Washington. Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Orchestrations by Sam Davis and Daryl Waters. Inspired by the MGM motion picture New York, New York written by Earl M. Rauch. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Donna Zakowska. Lighting Design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Kai Harada. Projection design by Beowulf Boritt and Christopher Ash. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: C

Unfortunately, in a season packed with excellence and crowd-pleasing highlights, New York, New York ends the 2022-2023 Broadway season as a bland letdown. Given the creative team pedigree, it is truly amazing that this was the best they could come up with. Impossibly old-fashioned, and awkwardly, desperately trying to be relevant, this is less of a love letter to the city than it is a hop on/hop off bus tour that hits all the spots of a fantasy version of a New York that never really existed.

In many ways, the book by David Thompson and Sharon Washington, is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Set up as a series of vignettes, the scenes follow several stories, only loosely related until they converge in a sloppy, albeit obvious way by the end. Packed with stereotypes - none of them flattering - Thompson and Washington ignore the interesting (I suppose) things they've added. Why is one character so queer coded? Does the beating of a parental bully make up for it? Why is the risk of inter-racial coupling dismissed time and time again with jokes and interruption? Does an obvious racist rant by a white guy in power make up for it? And let's not forget the post-WWII Jewish immigrant story line. Does a gold Star of David on a violin, shown and then forgotten, further the point they are trying to make? Not even a little bit. If anything, these tropes are as insulting as they are undeveloped.

As far as the score goes, there are three standouts: the title number (though more for its presentation than anything else), the John Kander and Fred Ebb classic, "But the World Goes 'Round," and Kander, Ebb and Lin-Manuel Miranda song, "Music, Money, Love." The rest is really B-side trunk music, all of it competent, none of it exciting. I take no pleasure in saying this, because these American masters are among my favorites, right up there with Sondheim and Herman. But, respectfully, maybe this wasn't the best idea.

While being able to rein all of this mess into an exciting musical is the responsibility of the director, which hasn't happened here,
Susan Stroman's choreography almost makes up for it. Almost. I'm a big fan of clever scene transitions, and she never misses one. Some are truly fun to watch, but most are just reprises of the opening number. It got to the point where my eyes glazed over every time the orchestra started to vamp. There are moments of real fun, like the opening number I just mentioned, and the steel beams tap number. To be fair, the ensemble is made up of entirely talented folks, dancing their buns off. They are accomplished. One has to wonder then, where the usual "Stro Glow" was. Long gone, apparently, are the Crazy For You innovations. There is so much dancing that it seems to all blur together. Crazy For You is 30 years old, and I can still describe specific things about each number. New York, New York is less than a week old for me and I'm struggling to recall anything specific. 

As I said, the dancers are working their asses off, and so, too, are the principal cast. Both John Clay III (the Army guy back from the war) and Angel Sigala (the queer coded Cuban immigrant) make the most of what they have to work with. Clay does well with his act two number, "Light," yet another stop on the NYC tour, highlighting that rare moment when the sun sets between the buildings. The number never soars like it is intended, but that's not his fault. Sigala is saddled with a cringe-worthy number, "Gold," which made me think instantly of Kiss of the Spider Woman's "Dressing Them Up," a superior song that covers the same ground. (Trunk song, maybe?) Other supporting cast members that try to overcome the paltry bits they are given include Wendy Bergamini (in for Emily Skinner) as a music teacher waiting for her son to come back from the war, and her new pupil, the Jewish refugee played by Oliver Prose. Then there's the leading man's sidekick, played by the ever reliable Clyde Alves, good for several shouted New Yawk-isms and a few slick dance moves. The biggest waste of time and talent has to be casting Janet Decal as the Cuban mother who runs interference between her effeminate son and her abusive husband. Ms. Decal deserves so much better. As I type this, the stories and characters seem ripe for big, important narratives. How terribly disappointing.

By now, you must be wondering why I still gave this a C. Maybe it's partly because the cast is working so hard, but mostly it's the two stars of the show and the technical elements. Yes,
Anna Uzele is a hell of a singer, and she gives masterful performances of two of the three best songs in the show. But she also brings a smartly doled out performance that builds, and offers some of those rare instances of real emotions. Similarly, the debonair, stylized star turn by Colton Ryan, also stands out for having some gutsy heft. I applaud his tenacity of maintaining that affected Bing-Crosby-babba-boo accent so prevalent in films of the era. True, sometimes his vowels are as unintelligible as mid-80's Patti LuPone, but he makes it work. Both of their voices are terrific, very "Broadway," powerful belt, in character, and no trace of American Idol histrionics. They are both stars on the rise, and I hope they both get better material in their next shows.

Where New York, New York really soars is visually and sonically. The o
rchestrations by Sam Davis and Daryl Waters are gorgeous, and the balance between cast and band are perfection, though not surprising given that Kai Harada designed the sound. Lighting maestro Ken Billington has provided enough razzle dazzle for two shows, and there are moments where I wanted to simply bask in the light's glow. An amazing number of costumes - a huge cast, a full year of seasons, and a gazillion scenes - were designed by Donna Zakowska, who really created art with fabric. The very best thing about the whole show, though, are Beowulf Boritt's eye-popping scenery and projection design. It's been awhile since Broadway has seen something this big, this intricate, this exciting. You see every penny of your ticket dollar on the St, James stage. Okay, a similarly delightful visual feast can be seen across 44th Street. This is even better.

Would that this whole show had lived up to the potential of its leading man and lady, and its first-rate design team.

P.S.: Can someone explain why that creepy guy was skulking around each scene taking pictures? And why did nothing ever come of it?

📸: M. Klein, P. Kolnik

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