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Bright Lights, Middling City: “New York New York” reviewed

It doesn’t get more anthemic than “New York, New York,” the Fred Ebb and John Kander number penned for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name. Full of optimism and determination, the song celebrates the Big City’s evergreen ability to thrive. (The film itself? Well-made, but a bit of a downer.)

A new, original production that just opened on Broadway at the St. James Theatre under the direction, and with the choreography of, Susan Stroman mines all the inspiration it can from the title song – well, it’s sort of new. The musical is loosely inspired by the Scorsese film, in which Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli as a saxophonist and a singer involved in a tumultuous love affair. Jimmy (Colton Ryan) and Francine (Anna Uzele) now rub elbows with characters dreamed up by the book writer David Thompson with Sharon Washington. They are musicians and singers, strivers and dreamers. And sadly, none make much of an impression, mired as they are in a syrupy muck of good sentiments and grating civic cheerleading.

There’s a general sense that the entire show was crafted by committee with every voice given equal weight. The result is a sort of throw-it-all-out-there-and-see-what-sticks approach in which the stage is cluttered with fragmented sketches. In addition to Francine and Jimmy, Black Army vet Jesse Webb (John Clay III) yearns for success as a trumpeter and Polish teen Alex Mann (Oliver Prose) longs to improve his violin skills. Chief among the supporting players, though, is drummer Mateo Diaz (Angel Sigala), a Cuban immigrant who envisions bringing the music of his home country to the US, though he has to surmount obstacles like a dead-end line-cook job and an abusive father.

The score for “New York, New York” juxtaposes new songs Kander wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda, like the propulsive “Music, Money, Love,” with older ones set to lyrics by Ebb. Of those, the best known (you-know-what and “But the World Goes ’Round”) were pulled from the Scorsese movie, while others were repurposed, such as “A Quiet Thing” from the 1965 show Flora the Red Menace and “Marry Me” from 1984’s The Rink.

Stroman’s direction is uncharacteristically sloppy, leaning heavily on her choreographic skills where she always shines. The opening number is a busy hodgepodge that looks pretty enough but does little to introduce the story. And almost all of the scene changes are staged with dance sequences depicting city life: pickpockets, street artists, straphangers, mob hits, you name it. A little of that would have gone a long way but after a while it just serves to stop the momentum. And how to explain the body of a murdered gangster who suddenly stands up and exits in full view stage left?

The entire creative team is to be applauded for trying to apply a post-pandemic perspective. But this show deserved a more intentional approach to its characters, and a bit more grit in order to ring true.

New York, New York

St. James Theatre