New York, New York (c) Paul Kolnik
Theater: New York, New York
On Broadway at the St. James Theatre
It’s been many years since I’ve seen the 1977 film New York, New York, but I always remembered it certainly wasn’t a feel-good experience, considering it was from director Martin Scorsese and includes artists from the hardly happy Cabaret (actor Liza Minelli and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb). So, it’s not surprising that book writers David Thompson and Sharon Washington and director and choreographer Susan Stroman have only kept the bare bones structure of the film, opting for a more Ragtime kaleidoscope narrative of many aspiring musicians trying to be successful in the titled city, post WWII. Like the film, most of the musical’s focus is on Jimmy (Colton Ryan), a jack-of-all-trades musician whose hot-headedness keeps him from keeping the gigs he gets, and Francine (Anna Uzele), a fresh-off-the-bus singer with a dream. They meet at an audition, and from there Jimmy makes it his mission to make Francine, who is African American, a star. But this central love story is now populated with other musicians from their orbit, including an African American trumpet player (John Clay III) who encounters his fair share of racist club owners; a Cuban drummer (Angel Sigala) who wants to introduce Latin music to the city’s musical landscape; and a Polish immigrant (Oliver Prose) who has dreams of playing violin at Carnegie Hall. If anyone can keep all these stories afloat, it’s Stroman. She fills the St. James stage with life, bustling with action and vibrancy, a love letter to the city that never sleeps, going from one NYC landmark (like Central Park) to another (like the Brooklyn Bridge) with breakneck speed and clarity. Her most breathtaking moment (for a rather superfluous number) includes the setting sun-through-the-skyscraper phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge before there was ever such a term. It is simply magical.
New York, New York (c) Paul Kolnik
Unfortunately, Thompson and Washington’s book never lifts these artists’ stories above the cliches we have seen too many times before. Jimmy and Francine’s romance feels more akin to La La Land than the gritty source material. The creators supplement the few songs from the movie with many from the Kander & Ebb songbook, as well as a couple of new songs Kander wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda. And while the songs themselves are fine, many feel gerrymandered into the plot rather than organically growing out of the story. The acting by the huge ensemble is fine, with only Colton Ryan feeling like he’s in a different show altogether. His mumblecore, open-hearted acting style gives Jimmy an exciting unpredictability, especially in his Olympic marathon “I Love Music” number, but there are times he indulges in long pauses and vocal tics that make the new song “Can You Hear Me?” ironic and the popular “A Quiet Thing” almost unrecognizable. Anna Uzele, however, steals the show, sometimes in the acting scenes, like her reaction to Jimmy’s whitesplaining racism to her, but mostly in her powerful singing, like in the transplanted “Let’s Hear it for Me” from the finale of Funny Lady in Act One and of course, the showstopper of all showstoppers, “The Theme from New York, New York” in Act Two. She doesn’t erase Minelli or Frank Sinatra’s version from your brain, but she does rouse the audience into a frenzy for the show’s finale. I admired a lot of the stage version of “New York, New York,” I just wish the show moved me emotionally as much as it seems to want to.
Oliver! (c) Joan Marcus
At Encore! City Center (until May 14)
There are a few hit Broadway musicals I have avoided either consciously or unconsciously. Shows embraced and lauded, but aside from knowing a couple of hit songs, I have never seen them. This is true of Oliver! and knowing how popular it is for grammar and middle schools to produce, I am shocked I’ve seen neither a revival of the 1963 Broadway show nor the 1968 film version, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Now, having seen Lear deBessonnet’s presentation at Encores!, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I liked seeing how influential Oliver! is when dealing with some plot elements that will echo in future musicals like Miss Saigon (the Engineer is very much like Fagan), Sweeney Todd (the Beggar Lady deus ex machina), Les Miserables (greedy opportunistic foster parents) and, of course, Annie (orphans and a rich benefactor). What impressed me most is writer Lionel Bart didn’t try to sugarcoat the source material, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. And he was able to include many colorful characters, if only for a few minutes on stage, while Dickens probably devoted chapters to them. The basic story follows the scrappy, titled orphan who runs away to London to be scooped up by the nefarious Fagan to join his gang of pick-pocketing boys. While I’m sure much of the pessimistic and cruel situations was toned down in school productions, deBessonnet’s production (with only two weeks of rehearsals, amazing) always refers to the Dickens novel as its inspiration, keeping the cute orphan tropes to a minimum and highlighting Dickensian themes of social and economic inequality.
Oliver! (c) Joan Marcus
Benjamin Pajak, last scene-stealing the show from Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man, is again stealing the stage as Oliver every time he gets to sing (his “Where is Love” is heartbreaking) or be the center of a scene, which surprisingly, considering he’s the main character, is not very often. Usually, he’s lumped in with the other kids or is a thing tossed around from one adult character to another. His pre-London adventures include run-ins with factory owner Mr. Bumble (Brad Oscar) and Widow Corney (Mary Testa) and the undertaker Mr. Sowerby (Thom Sesma) and his wife (Rashidra Scott), and while the actors do a good job, this section does feel like a cliff notes version of the novel. It’s his London adventures that give the show heft. Fagan (Raul Esparza) has always been the center of the musical, and I wrongly thought he was the villain. He is more of a Falstaff to Oliver’s Prince Hal. I was prepared for an over-the-top and bravura performance by Esparza, but he actually plays down the characters hamminess and portrays Fagan with more sympathy and pity. That doesn’t mean Esparza fails to ooze slickness in “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” but it’s his “Reviewing the Situation” that gives Fagan his many dimensions. Lilli Cooper as Nancy certainly sings the heck out of her big numbers, but her insistence on staying in an abusive relationship with the evil Bill Sykes (mustache twirling Tam Mutu) is excruciating in 2023. And, of course, the team of kid actors playing the orphans is overflowing with talent, especially in the earworm songs “Food, Glorious Food” and “Consider Yourself,” the latter number highlighting the wonderful Julian Lerner as the Artful Dodger. Will Oliver! follow last season’s Into the Woods on a path to Broadway? I wouldn’t be surprised if it does and succeeds.
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