Monday, March 27, 2017

"The New Yorkers" - Less than a full meal, but still quite delicious

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Illicit liquor flowing by the barrel, gangsters who won't stay dead after being shot, high society folks with low moral standards, tap dancing cops with machine guns, and where being thrown into Sing-Sing prison is an excuse to break into song. These are but some of the elements present in the long-forgotten 1930 musical The New Yorkers. Painstakingly resurrected by the people at Encores! this product of a bygone era proves to be both very delightful and also so very, very lacking in substance a decent wind will blow it away.

Subtitled a Sociological Musical Satire, the show gleefully takes aim at the New York upper crust, as well as the widespread corruption that often afflicts those in authority. Also coming in for a ribbing is the entire concept of prohibition. The show's creators making the point that a ban ignored by enough people, ceases to be a ban in all but name.

The overall plot involves Alice Wentworth (Scarlett Streallen), a Park Avenue dilettante who's engaged to fellow blue-blood Philip Booster (Todd Buonopane). even though she has fallen in love with someone else. The person who stole her heart being Al Spanish (Tam Mutu), a mobster who runs one of the hottest nightclubs in New York. A place where the elite come to play and illegal alcohol is freely available. Al, who's had a long-term relationship with singer and club headliner Mona Low (Mylinda Hull), happily returns Alice's affections. Although he has no intention of giving up his life of ill-repute. Nor would Alice want him to. It being so much more fun than her accustomed lifestyle, and more dangerous to her health. Especially since Al is trying to muscle in on the New York caviar market. Something gangster Feet McGeegan (Arnie Burton), who controls the flow of sturgeon into the city, is determined to prevent.

What makes the show so interesting is the seemingly haphazard way it's structured. The piece filled with comedic sketches - vehicles for actor/singer/comedian Jimmy Durante, who was in the original cast - as well as various musical numbers, all quite enjoyable and most of which stop the forward momentum of the show cold while they play out. Something which would never go over in the musicals of today. This is especially true with "Wood". An act one finale so offbeat, that actor Kevin Chamblerlin, who plays the Durante role, has to explain to the audience that this was how the first act actually ended in 1930.

The show has a fascinating pedigree, it being the brainchild of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno. According to the show program, Arno was someone loved taking down society's upper crust in his drawings, an effect which translates quite well here. While much of the material was long thought lost, most of it was pulled together though a painstaking restoration process, with new material added to cover the gaps, Such as a sly reference to "Big River", the previous production presented by Encores!

Acting as the glue that holds the entire piece together is the often machine gun-like dialogue from book writer Herbert Fields, much of which still packs a punch today. Such as "There comes a time in every man's life when a woman needs fifty dollars". The line spoken by Alice's mother, Gloria (Ruth Williamson) upon seeing her cheating husband (Byron Jennings) on the town with a woman of easy virtue. Of course Gloria is also stepping out on her husband, thus showing how the apple doesn't always fall far from the tree. Also quite funny is a sequence where Philip is told how Prohibition was enacted a decade earlier; to which he queries, with a drink in his hand when said regulations would actually take effect. This being a not-so-subtle swipe at how easy it was to obtain liquor at the time if one wanted it.

Fitting quite nicely into all of this is Cole Porter's delightful score. While the two standards that came out of the show were "Love For Sale" and "I Happen To Like New York", other enjoyable tunes include "The Great Indoors", which touts the virtue of staying at home on weekends. There's also the hilarious "Say It With Gin", as well as the very funny "Drinking Song". The last not a Porter contribution, but created for the show by Chas. Henderson and Fred Waring. Members of Waring's group, The Pennsylvanians, appearing in the original production.

Strallen is quite appealing as Alice. She opening the show by running into a doctor's office and setting up a comedy bit, which basically sets the tone for what is to follow. Mutu is appealing as Mr. Spanish. He and Strallen's easy chemistry working well in their rich girl/bad boy love story. Hull does very well as Mona and delivers a wonderful rendition of "The Great Indoors". She also has a nice comic duet with Buonopane in "I'm Getting Myself Ready For You" - one of the more risqué numbers of the show. Robyn Hurder is great fun as Lola McGee, a good time girl who goes through the entire Sing-Sing chain gang, among others. Chamberlin does very well as hoodlum/comic Jimmie Deegan. He having one of the more difficult jobs here. Delivering material that was clearly written for someone else, but succeeding nicely. Burton does a wonderful turn as McGeegan, especially in the number "Let's Not Talk About Love", added here from Porter's 1941 musical "Let's Face It". The cadence of the song calling to mind the style of "Tschaikowsky" from "Lady in the Dark".

Adding to the ambiance of the piece are the wonderful period costumes by Alejo Vietti and some very enjoyable dancing numbers choreographed by Chris Bailey. John Rando's direction works well, he able to bring all these different styles more or less together and still form an altogether satisfying experience.

While the Encores! production of The New Yorkers is certainly not perfect, there was still a lot of fund to be had. Besides, while the show was light and airy throughout, and without much substance, not once did it feel bloated.

The New Yorkers: A Sociological Musical Satire
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Herbert Fields
Based on a Story by E. Ray Goetz and Peter Arno

Starring: Cyrille Aimée, Clyde Alves, Todd Buonopane, Arnie Burton, Kevin Chamberlin, Mylinda Hull, Robyn Hurder, Byron Jennings, Eddie Korbich, Tam Mutu, Jeffrey Schecter, Scarlett Strallen, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Ruth Williamson, Matt Bauman, Sam Bolen, Christine DiGiallonardo, Brian Flores, Tessa Grady, Matthew Griffin, Curtis Holland, Evan Kasprzak, Marina Lazzaretto, Kathryn McCreary, Timothy McDevitt, Kristyn Pope, Mariah Reshea Reives, Lindsay Roberts, Brendon Stimson, Joseph Wiggan, Cody Williams.

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Concert Adaptation: Jack Viertel
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Orchestrations: Josh Clayton and Larry More
Dance and Vocal Arrangement: Rob Berman
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Casting: Binder Casting - Jay Binder, CSA/Justin Bohon
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Ron Berman
Directed by John Rando

Presented by New York City Center Encores!
131 West 55th Street
March 22 - March 26, 2017