‘New York, New York’ Review: The Big Apple, Without Bite

There’s a big new Broadway musical called “New York, New York,” and it’s based on the Martin Scorsese film bearing the same title.

Sort of.

Both the movie and the show have lead characters named Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans, both are set immediately following World War II and both prominently feature a certain anthem by John Kander and Fred Ebb. You know, the one whose first five notes, plunked on a piano, are enough to automatically prompt the brain to fill in the rest.

And it is that title song alone, rather than the movie, that is the true inspiration for the sprawling, unwieldy, surprisingly dull show that opened on Wednesday night at the St. James Theater.

Extrapolating from its lyrics, “New York, New York,” directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is about the people wearing those “vagabond shoes,” the ones who “want to wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep.” 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.

As the various story lines move toward their inevitable intersection, any sign of wrinkle or kink has been smoothed out. The most prominent victims are the reimagined Jimmy and Francine, who have been flattened into cardboard figures. The film’s Jimmy, portrayed by Robert De Niro, was an obnoxious, abusive, narcissistic jerk of a sax player who fell for Liza Minnelli’s Francine, a passionate singer who worked her way up from canary in big bands to solo star; their volatile relationship would not pass the smell test with 2023 audiences.

The new Jimmy is merely a minor irritant who has graduated from good saxophonist to brilliant multi-instrumentalist equally at ease playing jazz with the African American trumpeter Jesse (John Clay III) and Latin grooves with the Cuban percussionist Mateo (Angel Sigala), whose own stories are delineated in broad strokes. That Jimmy ends up as a human bridge between the musical styles of Harlem and Spanish Harlem is quite a feat for a white-bread Irish kid. (A Jewish violinist played by Oliver Prose mostly exists on the sideline.)

Meanwhile, Francine comes across as a spunky, empowered free spirit plugged into a 21st-century outlet. A Black woman, she overcomes the treacherous waters of the music scene with relative ease, and setbacks seem to glide off her.

Ryan (“Girl From the North Country,” Connor in the film of “Dear Evan Hansen”) and Uzele (“Once on This Island,” Catherine Parr in “Six”) are technically fine, but they don’t fill characters drawn as sketches. They never find the ache that drives both Francine and Jimmy, nor the sexual attraction between them.

This creates a central void that further restrains the overly polished book — friction feeds fiction.

And if anybody knows that, it’s John Kander. An effective mix of louche syncopation, unabashed romanticism and biting sarcasm long set Kander and Ebb apart on Broadway, from “Cabaret” to “Chicago” to their brilliant earlier collaboration with Stroman, “The Scottsboro Boys.”

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 “The Rink” (1984).

But no matter when or who they were written with, too many of the songs lack Kander and Ebb’s signature serrated edge. Partly this has to do with Sam Davis’s arrangements and music direction, which have a deficit of oomph, and thus further reinforce the show’s sexlessness — there is no pulse when there is no swing. (Kander and Ebb were capable of that more than most Broadway creators: Just listen to, say, the fantastically driving “Gimme Love” from “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”)

The new show’s rah-rah tone eventually becomes numbing. This is all the more frustrating because ambivalence is baked into the title song, which alludes to the city’s mercurial temperament. “If I can make it there/I’d make it anywhere” — we’re in a tough town — is followed by “It’s up to you/New York, New York,” which deprives the singer of agency. But the show follows the triumphant template set by Frank Sinatra rather than the more ambiguous one imparted by Minnelli. In this rose-colored vision, trials are temporary, everybody gets along, and nobody runs up against New York’s bad side.

Stroman has a rare affinity for classic Broadway showmanship, as illustrated by her work on “Crazy for You” and “The Producers,” but she can also veer into radical stylization, as in “The Scottsboro Boys.”

Here, the flashes of inspiration are few and far between. A highlight is a tap number staged on high beams, with a couple inscribed with “JK 3181927” and “FE 481928” — Kander and Ebb’s birth dates, and two of the Easter eggs lurking in Beowulf Boritt’s vibrant set, dominated by towering fire escapes. The magical moment known as Manhattanhenge is evoked with a terrific assist from the lighting designer Ken Billington. And there is, as always, the visceral thrill of watching a big band rise up to the stage, when Jimmy’s combo kicks off the title song at the end.

It is not much to remember from a show that clocks in at nearly three hours and had such formidable potential. “You can be anyone here,” Jesse says at one point, “do anything here.”

If only “New York, New York” had interpreted that line not as a reassurance, but as a challenge to dare.

New York, New York
At the St. James Theater, Manhattan; newyorknewyorkbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

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