Monday, April 3, 2017

The New Yorkers: Prohibition Musical

Scarlett Strallen and the cast of Cole Porter's The New Yorkers. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Halfway through the first act of The New Yorkers, the Cole Porter musical Encores! unearthed at City Center two weekends ago, the French jazz singer Cyrille Aimée saunters onstage to perform “Love for Sale,” the lament of a Manhattan streetwalker and certainly the most frequently covered song in the score. (It was Porter’s own favorite among all his songs, though the frankness of the lyric kept it off the radio for years.) Aimée’s style is an odd mix of early Billie Holiday and Astrid Gilberto, her phrasing is quirky – partly because of her semi-submerged accent – and she manages to be both worldly and woeful and innocent and newly minted at the same time. She’s the damnedest singer, and when she raises one hand and starts to trace her trills in the air like Ronee Blakley performing “Dues” in Robert Altman’s Nashville, the audience seems to be in thrall to her. I sure was. She stops the show, though her character is virtually unwritten. (She’s identified in the playbill merely as “A Lady of the Evening.”) She returns in act two for a reprise of “Let’s Fly Away,” but that’s it.

To my mind Aimée’s brief appearance was the production’s raison d’être. Cole Porter wrote The New Yorkers, subtitled A Sociological Musical Satire, in 1930, between two better-known shows, Fifty Million Frenchmen and Gay Divorce. It ran 168 performances – about three months less than either of the other two – and has never been revived except in two staged-concert versions. You can see why. The book by Herbert Fields (who also wrote Fifty Million Frenchmen) is Prohibition-era piffle about a gangster named Al Spanish (Tam Mutu) who wants to take over the caviar “racket” from someone named Feets McGeegan (Arnie Burton) and falls for an heiress named Alice Wentworth (Scarlett Strallen). Their romance breaks up her engagement to Phillip Booster (Todd Buonopane) – hardly a problem, since he’s become enamored with Al’s main squeeze, Mona Low (Mylinda Hull), the featured singer at his nightclub, Toro. (Mona’s name is a pun: Schwartz and Dietz’s torch song “Moanin’ Low” had been one of the big hits of 1929, when it was introduced in The Little Show.) Alice’s parents, Dr. Windy and Gloria Wentworth (Byron Jennings and Ruth WIlliamson), are cheating on each other with younger mates, but their lovers, a Lorelei Lee type named Lola McGee (Robyn Hurder) and a British naval officer named Hillary Trask (Tyler Lansing Weaks), click, and the Wentworths wind up where they started, with one another (and happily so). In between Feets gets shot apparently fatally three different times and many of the characters wind up first in jail and then in Florida before rerouting to their much beloved Manhattan. (The score also offers “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “I Happen to Like New York.”)

Tam Mutu and Scarlett Strallen. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
You’d have to bend the meaning of the term “satire” almost out of recognition to call The New Yorkers one. The book is a series of gags, many of them about illegal booze, that probably didn’t seem fresh even in 1930, though Kevin Chamberlain, as Toro’s comic Jimmy Deegan, makes the most of them. He’s in the Jimmy Durante role, and Clyde Alves and Jeffrey Schecter play his sidekicks, as the other members of Durante’s trio, Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, did on Broadway. Unfortunately Durante interpolated three of his own novelty songs into the score – “The Hot Patata,” “Wood” and “Data” – and the show is stuck with them; to say that they’re not at the level of the Cole Porter tunes would be an understatement. “Wood,” the interminable first-act finale, is particularly egregious: it’s all about the virtues of wood (seriously), and while the ensemble renders it the director, John Rando, has them pile up furniture and props made of that substance. (One of the cast explains to the audience, “This is really how the first act ends,” in recognition of our incredulousness.)

The actual Porter songs include quite a few gems, including the little-known “Where Have You Been?” and one, “I’m Getting Myself Ready for You,” that I’d never heard before. The choreographer Chris Bailey stages it as if it were one of those risqué pre-Hays Code Busby Berkeley movie-musical numbers like “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” or “Pettin’ in the Park,” and Hull and Buonopane perform it winningly. They’re a good pairing throughout, her lanky frame – she has long, long legs like the comic dancer Charlotte Greenwood, who was popular during this era – setting off his endearing tubbiness. Encores! adds half a dozen Porters from other shows – “You’ve Got That Thing” and “Please Don’t Make Me Be Good” from Fifty Million Frenchmen, “Night and Day” from Gay Divorce, “The Physician” from the 1933 West End musical Nymph Errant (where it was introduced by Gertrude Lawrence), “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love” from Leave It to Me! (1938) and “Let’s Not Talk About Love” from Let’s Face It (1941). Two are mistakes, I think: “Night and Day,” which Fred Astaire, of course, sang on stage and on film, is too famous to be slipped convincingly into another show, and “Let’s Not Talk About Love” is full of early-forties topical references. (No one knew who Hedy Lamarr or Betty Grable was in 1930.) As if to pave the way for these anachronisms, one of the characters quotes A Streetcar Named Desire – written in 1947 – early in the evening. I could have lived without both.

Rando keeps the show lively (for “Let’s Fly Away,” the chorus holds cardboard cut-outs of clouds and propellers) and Bailey comes up with a lot of nifty choreography, especially for “Go into Your Dance,” the first number, and “Night and Day,” where Strallen is partnered by three men in tuxedos and fedoras. Strallen’s dancing is way better than her singing: she makes all her songs sound like they belong in operettas. Of the three leading ladies (Hurder is the third), Hull is the only one who never pushes her luck. In the male romantic lead, Mutu sings sweetly but has little personality. Arnie Burton has plenty, fortunately, and Eddie Korbich, playing five different small roles, does something different with each one. And the close-harmony trio (Christine DiGiallonardo, Lindsay Roberts and Kathryn McCreary) behind Hull is a highlight. The singing and the dancing are up to the Encores! standard, and musical director Rob Berman conducts the talented orchestra with his usual combo of skill and panache. It’s not a very good show, but even a second-rate Cole Porter musical is worth reviving.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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