'Cornelia Street' review — hardworking cast can't keep this thin musical afloat

Read our review of Cornelia Street, starring Norbert Leo Butz, off Broadway, currently playing at Atlantic Theater Company's Atlantic Stage 2 through March 5.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

From 1977 to 2018, the Cornelia Street Cafe was a thriving West Village hub for the arts. The place was renowned for its jazz music, composers exchanged works-in-progress as part of its Songwriters Exchange, and playwright Eve Ensler famously premiered The Vagina Monologues there in 1993.

And in the years leading up to its shutdown, Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) repeatedly went there to visit its impresario, Robin Hirsch. He's since teamed up with composer/lyricist Mark Eitzel to write a musical called Cornelia Street, about a cafe on the brink of closure. (A December 2022 Village Sun article claims Hirsch was taken by surprise, though he co-hosted a talkback with Stephens and Eitzel about his cafe last night, suggesting a since-mended fence.)

All this history of the Cornelia Street Cafe is rich and fascinating. The Cornelia Street musical, making its world premiere with Atlantic Theater Company, is not.

The show is fully original — or, at most, very loosely inspired by Hirsch — centering on Jacob, whose imminent loss of his failing restaurant leads to a host of other problems. His daughter Patti has no respect for him. Neither does his other estranged daughter, Misty, who shows up out of the blue. And he has to resort to drug dealing for an extra cash flow, but a slick salesman he is not.

Norbert Leo Butz does a commendable job with the character, imbuing Jacob with a boyish, explosive energy and amusingly dad-level dance skills. He also benefits from the fact that Jacob is the one character we get the fullest portrait of. He's ambitious and enthusiastic but impulsive, and that gets the better of him in work (like when he blows his budget on expensive ingredients) and life (like his past extramarital affair, which resulted in Patti).

But Stephens doesn't spend enough time digging into the consequences of any of that, leaving us with little reason to emotionally invest in Jacob. He instead gets distracted by the thinly drawn supporting characters, whom we're able to connect with even less. Case in point: a forced attempt at a romantic subplot between Misty and drab Google employee Jacob, spurred on by another character telling him to ask her out with no buildup as to why an attraction might grow between them in the first place.

That character, by the way, is Sarah, a grandmotherly figure who gets shoehorned into an even less believable romantic subplot with Jacob. (She's also a former nightclub regular and potentially clairvoyant, another two elements hardly explored.) The effortlessly magnetic Mary Beth Peil at least makes the part entertaining. Kevyn Morrow does the same for Marty, the cafe's namesake and landlord, giving the most natural performance within Neil Pepe's otherwise stilted direction. And Gizel Jiménez pours her heart into her two songs, stirring the emotions even though we don't quite know what we're supposed to feel.

Suffering from the opposite problem is Patti, whose Act 1 solo "You Do Nothing" — theoretically about how her lack of respect for Jacob leaves her no motivation to live up to his expectations — has the potential to have the most dramatic heft. But the moment suffers from repetitive lyrics (an issue throughout) and Lena Pepe's inability to sing the part.

The overall result is a show that simply happens, with songs that do nothing to deepen or further any of its plot points. Cornelia Street needs some work — starting with becoming a straight play — if it has hopes of moving further uptown.

Cornelia Street is at Atlantic Stage 2 through March 5.

Photo credit: Norbert Leo Butz (center) and the company of Cornelia Street. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

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