New York, New York, the new musical with a mix of not-so-new songs by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb plus a lyrics assist by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a visually dazzling tribute to the city that never sleeps but a show whose substance never quite matches its sparkle. The legendary duo behind Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, Kander and Ebb are also the authors of perhaps the most famous civic anthem ever written, around which the new musical is ostensibly built.
Loosely based on the 1977 Martin Scorsese film of the same name starring Big Apple mascots Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, this staged version teases the promise of those big, brassy Gotham musicals of yore, like 42nd Street or Guys and Dolls—fire-escape squabbles! City-street dance numbers! But despite a few moments of brilliance, particularly a rollicking finale of the tentpole title track, it doesn’t deliver on story.
It is really about four stories interwoven, set in the moment just after WW II when the city is grappling with the residual trauma of war but pulled by the tide of hope and possibility of a new decade. The main romantic plot involves Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans, played by Colton Ryan (Girl From the North Country) and Anna Uzele (Six), two young musicians with a lot of promise and a lot in their way: For her, it’s race and gender; for him, it’s booze and ghosts of war.
The notion of an interracial couple in the ’40s (she’s Black, he’s white) could be enough of a show in itself, but there isn’t time to delve into much complexity with the other storylines to get to, which include Mateo, a femme Cuban immigrant (played delightfully by Angel Sigala) and his abusive father; Madame Veltri, a violin teacher and her Polish refugee student, Alex; and Jesse, a Black trumpeter who can’t catch a break after serving his country. It’s an ambitious and often dizzying set of characters to remember, let alone empathize with.
Directed and choreographed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman (The Producers, Crazy for You), it is no surprise the dance numbers provide an exhilarating lift when the plot drags. A tap dance ingeniously staged on the unfinished beams of a skyscraper—cleverly evoking the famous photograph—is almost worth the price of admission and perfectly combines Stroman’s brilliance with Beowulf Boritt’s note-perfect sets.
Stroman also makes fine use of Donna Zakowska’s divine costumes, with the fuller skirts of the postwar period that whirl so magically. It is hard not to see the presence of Claire McCardell in the vibrant shirtwaists and popover dresses that had this reviewer longing for the scenes featuring elegantly dressed New Yorkers just walking, which has always been one of this city’s greatest forms of theater.
As the plot barrels on like an uptown express train, the stories begin to combine: Francine’s career takes off; Jimmy struggles then eventually finds his footing, opening a club uptown with Mateo and Jesse. Madame Veltri and Alex bond over heartbreaking losses and find solace with their fellow musicians. Fans of Kander and Ebb will be heartened by the needle drop of some deeper cuts, especially “A Quiet Thing” from 1965’s Flora the Red Menace (which coincidentally garnered Minnelli her first Tony at 19), sung now by Jimmy. Ryan’s performance veers toward affect for the most part, but his rendition here is a moment of real tenderness. For her part, Uzele revives “But the World Goes ‘Round,” from the 1977 film, with a gusto and assuredness befitting the great torch singers of the past. If the shaky scaffolding of the show is a way to bring these gems to new eyes and ears, it feels almost worth it.
With the trials of the characters more or less resolved—love is found, struggling musicians gainfully employed, Francine disabused of moving to Los Angeles (the mortal sin of any New Yorker)—the audience is teed up for the moment they have been waiting for since entering the St. James Theatre: the big “New York, New York” finale. There is perhaps no other song with as much emotional purchase on the city’s collective psyche, and Uzele belts it from a suddenly raised pit, giving the audience exactly what they came for. If only the electricity of this moment could be spread around more evenly among the previous 2 hours 40 minutes. One so badly wants, as the song pleads, for New York to come through, but it never quite arrives.