The New Yorkers, an Encores! production, was performed at New York City Center.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
“What kind of a show is this, I ask you?”
Thus inquires a character in the midst of Act II of the Encores! re-creation of Cole Porter’s 1930 musical The New Yorkers. And many musical theatre cognoscenti in the audience may have been asking themselves the same question. Is it a book musical? A revue? An extended vaudeville act? Or as the subtitle says: ‘A sociological musical satire’? Maybe a hodge-podge of all of them.
Whatever, the show, which ran the usual Encores! schedule of seven performances (the last on 26 March), proved to be a great spring tonic for this uncertain season of the real world.
It takes us back to a mythical hedonistic paradise, Jazz Age Manhattan, filled with flappers, speakeasies, and the haute monde and the hoi-polloi having the time of their lives.
Opening at the onset of the Great Depression, the original production of The New Yorkers, with Jimmy Durante as top banana, managed to score 163 performances.
Some of its songs remained prominent in the Porter canon, but much of the show’s production materials, such as orchestrations, were lost. The Encores! restoration required extensive research, along with reworking. Songs have been dropped, other Porter songs added.
Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel adapted Herbert Fields’ original book, which was based on a story concocted by the show’s original producer E. Ray Goetz and leading New Yorker magazine cartoonist Peter Arno. The title, of course, provided a smart cross-marketing opportunity for the magazine, then only five years old.
“While this can hardly be called an authentic restoration in an academic sense,” Viertel says in an article in the show’s programme, “we have been as meticulous as we can about re-creating the style and sound of the early 1930s.”
John Rando’s direction cunningly keeps a sense of giddy intoxication bubbling through the proceedings, carried through in Chris Bailey’s tap-heavy choreography.
The tenuous plot centres on the romance between a society girl Alice Wentworth and a bootlegger Al Spanish. When he gets arrested and his speakeasy is forced to close, she moves it to her family apartment. She then calls the police to have her own apartment raided and everybody taken to jail, where they can engineer his escape.
Al and Alice are played with bountiful charm and grand exuberance by Tam Mutu and Scarlett Strallen. Mutu makes a playful rogue, in the Gene Kelly vein, gleefully sharing sexy duets with Strallen, such as ‘You’ve Got That Thing’ (taken from Fifty Million Frenchmen) and leading a buoyant ‘Take Me Back to Manhattan’.
Strallen moves effortlessly from delivering deadpan gag lines, into lively tap routines, high-kicks and big solos, such as ‘Night and Day (from The Gay Divorce) and the soaring closing anthem ‘I Happen to Like New York’.
Taking over Durante’s duties as Jimmie Deegan, speakeasy comedian-cum-cocktail inventor, is Broadway favourite Kevin Chamberlin, joyously morphing his own persona into Durante’s gruffness.
Durante wrote his own songs for the show, and Chamberlin delivers those remaining with old-time vaudeville pizzazz. They include a head-scratching ode to wood, which builds into a production number for the Act I finale.
“This is how Act I ended in 1930, folks!” Deegan assures the audience. “Go figure. Ha-cha-cha-cha.”
Bobbing in and out of the proceedings are a host of other folks. Alice’s married parents, each of whom has a love life on the side, are given aristocratic verve by Ruth Williamson and Byron Jennings. Williamson has her crowning moment with ‘The Physician’ (originally from Leave It to Me), in which she explains how her doctor husband was vitally interested in her individual anatomical parts, but not her as a whole.
Among others adding notably to the funfest are Mylinda Hull as Al’s other girlfriend, a torch singer aptly named Mona Low; Robin Hurder as the side dish of Alice’s father, and Clyde Alves and Jeffrey Schecter as Deegan’s performing sidekicks. Utility man Eddie Korbich runs through his dialect book playing a variety of guys, including a butler named Mildew.
Contributing to the show’s feeling of being a revue is jazz singer Cyrille Aimée. She appears in the middle of Act I, seemingly out of nowhere, for a sultry rendering of what was the show’s original big hit ‘Love For Sale’, even though its lyrics had it almost immediately banned from radio play. Aimée turns up in Act II as well for a scat reprise of ‘Let’s Fly Away’.
There is also the trio dubbed ‘The Three Girl Friends’: Christine DiGiallonardo; Lindsay Roberts, and Kathryn McCready, who delight with some close-harmony vocalising, including an Act II repeat of ‘Love For Sale’.
Then, there’s Arnie Burton, as Feet (short for ‘Effete’) McGeegan, a caviar mogul who feels threatened when Al plans to go into that business. He’s the character that asks that above-noted question as to what kind of show this is.
For his part, he brings an overlay of absurdism to the event. He is fatally shot several times, but keeps getting resurrected and finally appears as the jail warden. And in that guise, he delivers a splendid tongue-tripping gallop through ‘Let’s Not Talk About Love’ (from Let’s Face It), with all its old-time celebrity references intact.
The physical production is sleek, with many of the men in white tie and tails, and the women in glittery flapper frocks.
The scintillating Porter songs, played with masterful appreciation by the 29-piece orchestra conducted by Rob Berman, are, of course, the production’s raison d’être.
The script ties them together in fanciful, if sometimes inane, fashion, and it’s also heavily peppered with scattershot jokes. Many of them land, some of them don’t. But when they don’t, it’s no calamity.
The performers move happily on, taking the audience with them, as if in a bootleg gin and champagne-fuelled revelry. It’s that kind of show.
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