Review: The Ridiculous Fun of ‘The New Yorkers’ at Encores!
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, March 29, 2017
Every once in a while, it’s refreshing to just turn off your filter, forget everything you know about quality, and just let yourself bask in the fun. For me, this was especially true with The New Yorkers, the unapologetically silly, but refreshingly tuneful 1930s Cole Porter musical that recently played a limited run at Encores! at New York City Center.
The show has been pretty much lost since its Broadway run. In fact, Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel, working with a raft of researchers, needed to painstakingly reconstruct the show from various incomplete scripts and fragmented scores.
The New Yorkers is pretty much of its time — the plot features heavy doses of bootlegging and other whackadoo ‘20s shenanigans. It also doesn’t really seem to care whether the songs in the show actually have anything to do with the story. In fact, about half of them are diegetic (in other words, performative: they’re sung by characters who are conscious of the fact that they are singing).
Usually, when an organization like Encores! dusts off an archaic show like The New Yorkers, I tend to appreciate it for the chance to experience what shows were like before Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the form. But somehow, despite its obvious shortcomings, The New Yorkers wound up being a lark and a half.
The New Yorkers has a book by Herbert Fields, and is based on a story by E. Ray Goetz and Peter Arno, the latter a cartoonist for a then-fledgling magazine called The New Yorker. Herbert Fields’ libretti, while start-of-the-art for their day, tend to be fragmented and jokey, and The New Yorkers certainly fits that mold. But damned if this one isn’t genuinely funny, or perhaps it was the stellar cast of Broadway regulars here who really seemed to know how to make the hoary jokes work.
Chief among these stellar cast members was the supremely talented Scarlet Strallen in the central role of debutante Alice Wentworth. Good God, people, let’s get this woman back to Broadway, and may she never leave. Strallen not only has a crystalline soprano voice, she’s also a heck of a hoofer, and a damned fine comic. I honestly could have watched her do the entire show on her own. She’s really that good.
Also on hand were two of our best Broadway clowns, Kevin Chamberlin and Arnie Burton as Jimmy Deegan and Feet McGeegan, respectively. Burton would have stolen the show on his own — were it not for the aforementioned thievery of Ms. Strallen — as a recurring comic character who keeps getting shot dead, but who nonetheless winds up rejoining the show scant scenes later. Burton’s wonderfully droll delivery has been a highlight of many a show, including Peter and the Starcatcher, The 39 Steps, and the hilarious Off-Broadway play, The Explorer’s Club, and it was certainly a welcome addition to The New Yorkers.
Kevin Chamberlin had the perhaps unenviable task of filling the shoes of Jimmy Durante, who not only starred in the original run of The New Yorkers, but also contributed a half dozen of his own songs. Yes, even with Cole Porter as the composer/lyricist, it was still common practice at the time to assemble musicals from whatever bits and pieces the producer felt would make the show work.
Part of the fun of this version of The New Yorkers lay in the fact that the cast knew exactly how ridiculous the show was, and acted accordingly. For the act one finale, Chamberlin sang a quizzical little Jimmy Durante ditty called “Wood,” which is pretty much what it says on the label. At the Durante character’s exhortation, apropos of nothing in particular, the cast proceeded to fill the stage with a giant pile of furniture, musical instruments, and other wooden detritus. As the cast exited, Chamberlin shouted to the audience, “Yes, folks, this is actually how the first act of the show ended in 1930!”
One significant hole in the otherwise stellar cast was Tam Mutu as Alice Wentworth’s handsome suitor. As he demonstrated in the disastrous Doctor Zhivago, Mutu has a fine baritone voice, and is certainly easy on the eyes, but here he seemed uncomfortable with the style of the show. He simply didn’t have the light, effervescent touch necessary for the juvenile lead in a frothy musical comedy.
Another element that made The New Yorkers enjoyable was the opportunity to see a number of Cole Porter classics in their original context. Of course, “context” here is a relative term. The scandalous “Love for Sale,” while haunting and melodically rich, bears almost no relevance to the plot proceedings. A character simply shows up, sings the song, and leaves, as was the case with the character played by Tommy Tune in the recent Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good.
In a slightly more contextual vein, we have “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” one of Porter’s catchiest and most buoyant songs, which is sung when the entire cast somehow find themselves in Florida and immediately start longing to return home. And “I Happen to Like New York” made for a surprisingly stirring finale to the show, partly due to the rising wave of tubular bells featured in the orchestrations, but also to strangely unchanging harmonic structure of the song.
So, hats off to the good people of Encores! continue in their invaluable role as musical archeologists. Sure, once in a while they give us a real dud like Paint Your Wagon or Irma la Douce. But if the process, every now and then, can yield something as ridiculously fun as The New Yorkers, I’m more than willing to sit through the rest.
The New Yorkers presented by Encores! at New York City Center on March 22-26, 2017. Book by Herbert Fields; music and lyrics by Cole Porter; based on a story by E. Ray Goetz and Peter Arno. Directed by John Rando; choreography by Chris Bailey; music direction by Rob Berman; scenic design by Allen Moyer; costume design by Alejo Vietti; lighting design by Ken Billington; sound design by Dan Moses Schreier; concert adaptation by Jack Viertel; the Encores! Orchestra.
Cast: 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, and Ruth Williamson, with 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, Brendan Stimson, Joseph Wiggan, and Cody Williams
Cover: Robyn Hurder (center) with cast of Encores! ‘The New Yorkers;’ photo: Joan Marcus.