'New York, New York' review — Kander and Ebb musical is still searching for the very heart of it

Read our review of New York, New York on Broadway, which is directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman and features new lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

There are neon marquee lights from days of old. There are bustling dancers showing off their prowess as they rush to work and back home. There are even a few classics from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s heyday. Unfortunately for New York, New York, now running on Broadway at the St. James Theatre, there isn’t much else.

Loosely based on Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film, New York, New York follows a group of toxically optimistic performers trying to beat the odds and make it big in 1946. Francine Evans (Anna Uzele), a singer from Philly fresh off a USO tour, knows she will have to “work twice as hard to get half as far” in a segregated society.

Her love interest, Jimmy Doyle (a miscast Colton Ryan), believes Francine’s talent will override racial barriers. This idea comes up various times, expressed by white characters and characters of color, with the general conclusion that New York is special and different, a place with no discrimination.

Jimmy rebuffs Francine’s concerns over an interracial musical act with “This isn’t Texas. This is New York!” (The audience cheered.) Toward the end, Francine makes a career decision based on the racism and misogyny she’s experienced, and the characters take this as an offense against New York itself. “Don’t bet against New York,” one implores, as if her actions could possibly be construed that way.

Uzele’s Francine is the only character with a plot, and Uzele is the strongest performer. She carries the show as the self-sabotaging Jimmy grows to resent her success and recognition, leaving us without a reason to root for him. Her searing rendition of “But the World Goes Round” alone — during which projection designers Beowulf Boritt and Christopher Ash strip away the photorealistic backgrounds and leave Francine to bare her soul in a stark spotlight — outshines Ryan. His muffled voice doesn’t suit the broad and brassy Kander and Ebb numbers.

Ryan is done no favors, of course, by his character’s lack of plot or motive beyond landing Francine. We know he’s haunted by his past, but that doesn’t explain why he ambles about aimlessly until trumpet-playing veteran Jesse (John Clay III) and Cuban immigrant Mateo (Angela Sigala) hand him a second-act raison d’être. Characters in search of a plot, indeed.

Haranguing the show feels almost dirty, however, with Ebb long deceased and Kander now 96. (Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed additional lyrics, though his signature style is absent.) Theatregoers will recognize that Susan Stroman’s production, although it feels unfinished, is a love letter to the pair and their achievements in the genre. A revue would perhaps have been more appropriate than sticking half-developed characters with the songbook and hoping for the best.

At one point, a young violinist (Oliver Prose) tells his teacher, Madame Veltri (Emily Skinner, doing her best with little) that his whole family was murdered in Treblinka. She sings “A Simple Thing Like That” in response, a song about life’s randomness that, while pretty, doesn’t match the gravity of the moment.

If it were more cohesive, New York, New York could be a great show for tourists (if they can stomach the disparagement of living anywhere else), complete with classic, tap-dancing tunes that employ a large number of dancers, designers, and musicians. But would it not serve both the company and audience more if the musical was a better-crafted tribute to Kander and Ebb and the city that made them?

The show concludes with the long-awaited title number, delivered by Uzele (with a delightful orchestral surprise) in unearned triumph. Perhaps the performance best summarizes the story’s message: to march on against the odds, whether they be societal or a result of misdirected efforts.

New York, New York is at the St. James Theatre. Get New York, New York tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Anna Uzele and Colton Ryan in New York, New York. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

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