A musical about starry-eyed youngsters coming to New York with dreams of fame, fortune, and success is not exactly a new idea. Nor is it necessarily one that can ever be explored completely enough - New York, as a destination for those with hopes and aspirations of every conceivable kind, is always reinventing itself, so shouldn't musical treatments of that story do exactly the same thing?
The Taxi Cabaret is neither a new idea, nor a new show - the current New York Musical Theatre Festival production is its fourth incarnation. Luckily, except for a few minor references to the economy and the dot-com boom, it doesn't feel particularly dated, and it remains a generally amusing, enjoyable examination of the first year that six young adults spend living on their own in the Big Apple. That's the good news.
The less good news is that, for all the congenial charm that author Peter Mills has infused into the piece, it's a show so lightweight that it would crumple under the weight of a cream puff. Neither a revue nor a book a musical but occupying the treacherous middle ground in between, the show strains with all its might to be both at the same time, and succeeds at being neither. It's got a number of good songs, but they're only barely integrated into the story; we're expected to care about the characters, but their development ranges from the insufficient to the non-existent.
That's the most frustrating thing about the open-hearted show, which features some solid direction (by Cara Reichel), choreography (Marlo Hunter), and performances (Sebastian Arcelus, Alison Cimmet, Leo Ash Evens, Amy Justman, Jason Mills, and Simone Zamore) that never make sitting through the meandering show a chore. But don't waste much time thinking or feeling about whether author Scott (Evens) will find the ideal opening line for the novel he's writing, whether high-paid consultant Zach (Mills) will come out of the closet, or whether longtime sweethearts Mark and Sara (Arcelus and Justman) will stay together.
Instead, just do your best to enjoy the sights and sounds along the way. Among the most pleasant entries: The nice opening number, "Chapter One," about first starting out in the city; "Little Do They Know," Scott's tribute to the "I'll show them" spirit so common to those who move to New York; and "The City Is New," about how your perspective on the city changes depending on the experiences you have there.
Mills's writing also occasionally veers toward the bizarre, with the first-act finale, which addresses the show's various plot threads in terms of the shifting continents (Cimmet's character, Karen, is a teacher); "Game of Life," which compares the ups and downs of real life with the classic Milton Bradley board game; and "The Purchase of Manhattan," a dream that convinces CC (Zamore) to give up her aspirations of being an actress and instead pursue a career in real estate.
Are these songs out of place? Yes and no. Their connections to the story are slight at best, but not considerably less tenuous than, oh, Zach's caveman-themed number "Way Ahead of My Time," in which he muses on coming to grips with his sexuality. But they're creative, well-written material; Mills has a flair for melody, and has provided some very attractive ones here, and his lyrics are often facile and clever without being overly dependent on unnecessarily intricate rhyme schemes. The Taxi Cabaret is nothing if not accessible.
It also has six strong performers with the right youthful energy and eagerness for their roles. Mills, drenched with self-importance and smarm, is the real standout, and makes real events out of his terminally silly numbers, "Way Ahead of My Time" and "Life in the E-Z Pass Lane." Justman is also quietly appealing during her relatively few moments in the spotlight, and gives Sara some welcome warmth. The delightfully numerous and elaborate costumes are by David Kaley; Rick Hip-Flores provides the musical direction.
But even if you can relate to what the show says about first love or finding your ideal career, the piece's structure - much closer to a cabaret act than a musical, hence the title - allows it little in the way of dramatic heft. Avenue Q, playing just a block away, deals with much of the same subject matter, but has a unique style and point of view that The Taxi Cabaret - despite the simple, smile-inducing entertainment it provides - sorely, and noticeably, lacks.
New York Musical Theatre Festival