Review: A Tight, Tuneful ‘Subways Are for Sleeping’ at the York Theatre
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, February 27, 2018
Nobody wrote overtures like Jule Styne. I was reminded of that a few weeks back, when the Encores! presentation Hey, Look Me Over! used the overture to Subways Are for Sleeping as an entr’acte. It really whet my appetite for more, and fortunately, the York Theatre Company is currently presenting a staged reading of Subways as part of its rightfully venerated Musicals in Mufti series.
Despite my affection for the York, I unfortunately haven’t been able to give my full support to their previous two Mufti productions: Hallelujah, Baby! and Bar Mitzvah Boy. Neither felt like top-drawer Jule Styne. Thankfully, the current production of Subways Are for Sleeping all but wipes away the memory of those unfortunate shows.
Subways Are for Sleeping (1961) is an obscure show, to be sure. If anyone remembers it today, it’s likely due to a notorious publicity stunt that producer David Merrick pulled while the show was running.
Merrick recruited men in the Tri-state area with same names as theater critics from NYC daily papers, wined and dined them, brought them to the show, and used their quotes in a newspaper advertisement. Most of the newspapers caught the phony ad in time, but it did run in the early edition of one paper. Despite the attendant publicity, the show only eked out a meager 205 performances on Broadway.
Subways Are for Sleeping features a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a venerable pair, but nonetheless hit or miss over their long career. The story concerns an underground society of homeless people (they prefer “address-less”) in Manhattan, and their elaborate system of subsistence. The story also features two love stories, one dramatic, one comic, which in truth is a bit of a throwback to the creakier musicals of the 1940s.
The score to Subways represents Jule Styne at his most delightfully tuneful. Styne had a deft hand with contoured, seemingly simple, yet harmonically rich melodies. The show features a surfeit thereof, including those from the flowing “I’m Just Taking My Time,” to the exhilarating “Ride Through the Night,” to the sprightly march “What Is This Feeling in the Air?,” to the jaunty “Comes Once in a Lifetime.”
Subways also features a selection of alternately raucous and wry comedy numbers, notably “I Was a Shoo-In,” the back story of a fading beauty queen, and “Swing Your Projects,” a cynical accounting of one man’s fall from corporate grace. Plus, there’s the rollicking seasonal act one closer, “Be a Santa.” Comden and Green’s lyrics here are skillful, charming, and frequently showcase their signature erudition and humor.
The show does feature a few desultory ballads, some of which feel decidedly of their time, including a song for our heroine, “Girls Like Me,” in which she sits pining for “someone to set [her] free.” Subways Are for Sleeping would have a hard time passing the Bechdel Test.
As good as the score is, the book surrounding it is borderline ridiculous: a gay romp through the jolly lives of the homeless? I mean, come on. The romanticized justification for the lives of these happily displaced folk feels like so much ‘60s psychobabble, with intrepid individualists rejecting conformism and finding fulfillment in the societal interstices. Puh-lease. Plus, the denouement is thoroughly contrived, reaching just shy of deus ex machina territory.
All that said, the characters in Subway are pretty darned appealing, especially as revered by the York’s current cast. Eric William Morris as the male lead, Tom Bailey, has remarkable focus and a warm, likable stage presence. Gina Milo as the beauty almost-queen Martha Vail is likewise wonderfully committed to her character. Her delivery of the “Shoo-in” number was delightfully dynamic and poised, featuring a significantly more authentic Southern accent that Phyllis Newman, who won a Tony Award for originating the role. David Josefsberg makes for an adorable foil to Milo, particularly during his frenetic, amiable take on “I Just Can’t Wait,” a one-joke number that somehow manages to sustain.
Subways Are for Sleeping runs through March 4th at the York Theatre. It’s more than worth seeing for the delightful score and wonderfully committed cast. As for the book, well…did I mention the wonderful songs?
Subways Are for Sleeping, presented as part of the York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti series at the York Theatre Company at St. Peters Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, running through March 4, 2018. Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; music by Jule Styne; suggested by the book by Edmund G. Love. Directed by Stuart Ross; musical direction by David Hancock Turner; lighting design by Graham Kindred; production manager: Kevin Maloof; production stage manager: Shanna Allison; and assistant stage manager: Chris Steckel. Cast: David Josefsberg, Karl Josef Co, David Engel, Beth Glover, Alyse Alan Louis, Kathryn McCreary, Gerry McIntyre, Gina Milo, Eric William Morris, and Kilty Reidy.
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Cover: Top row (l. to r.): Beth Glover, Kilty Reidy, Karl Joseph Co, Gerry McIntrye, David Engel, Kathryn McCreary; seated (l. to r.): Eric William Morris, Alyse Alan Louis, Gina Milo, David Josefsberg; photo: Ben Strothmann.