by Brian Scott Lipton
Not since Henry Higgins turned cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle into a proper Englishwoman has so much attention be lavished on a diamond in the rough. Alas, although the gang at City Center Encores! has given Cole Porter and Herbert Fields’ 1930 social satire, The New Yorkers, the Pygmalion treatment, what appears on the City Center stage is essentially a highly polished cubic zirconia (which is rather ironic considering at least one lyric mentions Cartier).
Sure, one can have nothing but praise for the glamorous costumes by Alejo Vijetti, the clever choreography of Chris Bailey, the concentrated direction of John Rando, the glorious playing of the score by the fabulous orchestra under Rob Berman’s direction, and the tireless work of a top-notch cast, led by the extraordinary Scarlett Strallen as fun-loving rich girl Alice Wentworth. But not even their A-plus efforts can really transform this silly and overlong piece (it runs two and a half hours) into a must-see musical.
The less said about the show’s ridiculous plot the better. Let’s just say that it involves various unlikely couplings, a lot of drinking (even though it’s set during Prohibition), a college glee club, and society people singing and dancing in places as ridiculous as Sing Sing prison and the shores of yet-to-be-developed Naples, Florida. The quips are more corny than funny, although when delivered by such super-pros as Byron Jennings and Ruth Williamson, they land surprisingly well. The odds that you’ll actually care what happens to any of the characters is probably 100 to 1.
What counts here, naturally, is the score, which is primarily comprised of unknown Porter songs—here augmented by some of his biggest hits, including “Night and Day” and “You’ve Got That Thing.” Some of the songs are from 1930 but have been reassigned from the original Broadway production: the fabulous French jazz singer Cyrille Aimée literally appears from nowhere to croon a deeply felt “Love for Sale,” and the show now ends with that timeless anthem “I Happen to Like New York,” beautifully delivered by Strallen and the entire cast. (The show also includes another quintessential Gotham ode, “Take Me Back to Manhattan.”)
As is often the case at Encores!, the casting is spot-on. Kevin Chamberlin is an absolute hoot as gangster Jimmy Deegan, channeling original portrayer Jimmy Durante. But even this expert comic is outgunned by the truly hilarious Arnie Burton who plays the oddly-named Feet McGeegan and brings down the house performing the tongue-twisting “Let’s Not Talk About Love.” Meanwhile, Tam Matu is properly stalwart as Alice’s love interest, bootlegger Al Spanish; Robyn Hurder is delicious as the man-hungry Lola McGee; Mylinda Hull impresses as sassy nightclub singer Mona Low; and Eddie Korbich proves invaluable in a variety of small roles.
Intriguingly, one of Porter’s lesser-known songs “I’ll Fly Away” gets performed twice in this show, but The New Yorkers only intermittently really takes off.
The New Yorkers. Through March 26 at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.nycitycenter.org or call 212-581-1212 for tickets.
Photos: Joan Marcus