Dazzling spectacle with underdeveloped story and characters in ‘New York, New York’ at Broadway’s St. James Theatre

Now playing at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, the new musical New York, New York is, as its name implies, an homage to the “city that never sleeps” (or at least never did before the pandemic), as well as to the iconic work of three generations of Broadway legends, with music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb, additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. It’s also got a dazzling scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, projections by Boritt and Christopher Ash, lighting by Ken Billington, and costumes by Donna Zakowska that pay tribute to NYC’s major landmarks, the range of professions of its inhabitants, and the ethnicities and sexual identities of its melting-pot culture. What it lacks is a compelling story or character development (book by David Thompson, co-written by Sharon Washington), making it feel like a jukebox musical, minimally stringing together 28 segments of song and dance, which would work better for me as a revue (and would shorten the nearly three-hour running time by eliminating the forced narrative).

Anna Uzele (center) and company. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Very loosely based on the 1977 movie of the same name (a box-office flop that received mostly negative reviews but had a smash-hit title song by Kander & Ebb that quickly became our city’s anthem), the show is set in NYC in the post-WWII years of resurgence (here 1946-47) and retains the names of the film’s two main characters, musician Jimmy Doyle and singer Francine Evans, who form a romantic (now inter-racial) relationship that hits a few bumps before achieving the “Master Chord” dream of “Music, Money, Love.” Along with them is a group of musicians, dancers, and singers who comprise a checklist of diverse generic types, not fully fleshed-out three-dimensional individuals, also hoping to “be a part of it” and “make it there.” It’s a feel-good musical, so they do (not exactly a spoiler).

Colton Ryan and Anna Uzele. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The large company of 27, starring Colton Ryan as Jimmy and Anna Uzele as Francine (who lack any believable chemistry between them), includes an ensemble of eighteen and seven featured roles: Clyde Alves as Jimmy’s buddy Tommy Caggiano; John Clay III as the Black veteran soldier and trumpet player Jesse Webb; Oliver Prose as the young orphaned Holocaust survivor, Polish immigrant, and violinist Alex Mann; Emily Skinner as his strict mentor Madame Veltri, who awaits the return of her own son from the war; Angel Sigala as the gay Cuban percussionist Mateo Diaz; Janet Dacal as his mother Sofia, who is abused by her homophobic husband; and Ben Davis as music producer Gordon Kendrick, whose interest in Francine is less than professional, incurring the jealousy of Jimmy and her indignation. Other than those basic surface facts, we learn little else about the characters, whose minor storylines are largely subordinated to and upstaged by the spectacular artistic design.

The company. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The stunning sets, projections, and lighting capture the monumental beauty, color, and excitement of New York, from its neon signs and marquee lights, iron balconies, fire escapes, and rooftop water tanks, to Central Park, Grand Central, and Manhattanhenge, the background cityscape of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and so much more that New Yorkers take pride in and love, and visitors delight in seeing. It’s a virtual tour of Manhattan from your seat in the theater, among the most breathtaking highlights of which is Stroman’s exciting choreography of a daredevil tap dance and cartwheels, performed by Ryan, Alves, and members of the ensemble, on the metal girders of a soaring construction site, inspired by the famous 1932 photograph Lunch atop a Skyscraper (showing ironworkers on a break while completing the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center).

The cast. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

And the musical highlights of a score that incorporates songs from a variety of other shows by Kander & Ebb, a few new numbers by Kander, and some with Miranda, are the original blockbusters from the movie, here featuring the powerhouse vocals of Uzele – the expressive “But the World Goes ‘Round” and the showstopper “New York, New York” (originally sung by Liza Minnelli and popularized by Frank Sinatra), with Francine and the band (led by music director and conductor Alvin Hough, Jr.) rising from the orchestra pit for the exhilarating grand finale. Those are the moments that rise above the clichés of the narrative and characters, and embrace the vitality and renewal of NYC, both then (post-war) and now (post-pandemic).

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.

New York, New York plays through Sunday, July 30, 2023, at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $49-279, plus fees), go online. Masks are no longer required but are recommended.



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