Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 26, 2023
New York, New York. Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Written by David Thompson and co-written by Sharon Washington. Additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Inspired by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture New York, New York, written by Earl M. Rauch. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Donna Zakowska. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Kai Harada. Projection design by Christopher Ash and Beowulf Boritt. Hair and wig design by Sabana Majeed. Music supervision and arrangements by Sam Davis. Orchestrations by Daryl Waters and Sam Davis. Vocal arrangements by David Loud. music direction by Alvin Hough, Jr.
Director and choreographer Susan Stroman, with the assistance of an excellent team of designers, namely Beowulf Boritt (scenic), Christopher Ash (projections with Boritt), Ken Billington (lighting), and Donna Zakowska (costumes), offers a sumptuous view of 1940s Manhattan that can be best described as a series of living postcards. The show's opening recalls the exuberance of the sailors on leave in On the Town, and there are dancing underworld figures who appear to have drifted in from Guys and Dolls. Even a Times Square purse snatcher seems to be on the lam from 42nd Street. In addition, there are stunning images that reflect the grandeur of New York, such as the old Penn Station, the famous Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal, and a reference to the instantly recognizable "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper" photo.
Unfortunately, the musical's story and characters often get lost in the big city, and there is a sensation of viewing them while traversing the streets on a double-decker tour bus. We receive quick glimpses, and as we get closer to knowing the characters more fully, we have moved on to a different location and drop in on different lives. Indeed, New York is reputed to contain eight million stories, and there are times it feels like bookwriters David Thompson and Sharon Washington intend to tell all of them.
Whereas the film version focuses principally on a saxophonist and USO band singer, played by Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli, the musical, set in 1946-1947, widens the scope and shortens the time span. The central characters remain (at least in name), and the narrative revolves around hot-headed musician Jimmy Doyle (Colton Ryan) and singer Francine Evans (Anna Uzele), who is in this iteration African American. Race differences complicate their relationship, and their romance is further strained as Francine's star rises with the help of Gordon Kendrick (Ben Davis), a shady British music producer.
The film includes just a handful of original songs, and most of them are performed here. In addition to the title song, the score includes "But the World Goes Round" and "Happy Endings" (with "There Goes the Ballgame" omitted). There are songs from other Kander and Ebb shows and films such as "Quiet Thing" (from Flora the Red Menace), "Marry Me" (The Rink), and "Let's Hear it for Me" (Funny Lady. There's also haunting underscoring of "Sometimes a Day Goes By" (Woman of the Year). Kander, with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has contributed a handful or so new songs, the most successful of which are the plaintive "Better than Before," the lovely "Light" (accompanied by a goosebump-inducing lighting effect), and the bouncy "Music, Money, Love."
As the pair of lovers at the show's center, Ryan and Uzele do not generate a lot of combustible heat, but this may be more a fault of the book than of the performers. Ryan is generally charming, though, and he, Alves, and the ensemble are terrific as they perform Kander and Ebb's "Wine and Peaches" (cut from The Rink), which incorporates characteristically clever and thrilling tap dancing on the precarious beams of a skyscraper construction site. It's pure Stroman. Ryan also effectively conveys the character's darkness, although his backstory filches a major plot point from William Saroyan's The Human Comedy.
Uzele, who recently rocked it out in Six, demonstrates that she has the belt and the charisma to take on traditional musical comedy leading roles. She first appears, brimming with hope like a defiant Star to Be amidst the bustle of New York City, and by the end, she has made good on that promise.
Dacal and Sigala bring warmth and sentimental sweetness to the Cuban mother and son, and similarly, Skinner and Prose are moving as a surrogate mother and son.
Stroman makes excellent use of the entire ensemble, and the show is in nearly constant motion. The choreographed scene transitions become rather repetitive, but there are some wonderful tableaux, particularly one that involves Magritte-like floating and swirling umbrellas.
Of course, audiences attending the show eagerly anticipate the title song, which has become not just a standard, but an anthem. The musical teases with the famous vamp dropped in strategically, and the excitement is palpable. In the last few minutes, as the orchestra rises from the pit and Uzele commands the stage as if performing for a sold-out audience at Radio City Music Hall, all of the production's flaws, missed opportunities, and dashed dreams of another classic Kander and Ebb musical are almost forgiven. For those five minutes, we have entered musical comedy nirvana.