BWW Review: Cole Porter Meets Jimmy Durante as Encores! Reconstructs THE NEW YORKERS
The authors who wrote the books for even the most successful Broadway musical comedies of the 1920s and 30s often get a bum rap for the flimsiness of their plots and the nonsensical nature of their gags.
But when you consider that oftentimes they were handed a batch of potential hit songs and a list of stars they needed to write for (along with contractual obligations involving the material they performed), it's a miracle that a storyline of any coherence could ever be concocted. Musical comedies weren't workshopped and previewed to death in attempts to run on Broadway now and forever in those days. They were showcases for stars and launching pads for songs that were slapped together on the run and packaged for quick consumption.
Take a guy like Herbert Fields, the son of vaudevillian Lew Fields (of the famous Dutch comedy team of Weber and Fields) and sibling to playwright Joseph Fields and bookwriter/lyricist Dorothy Fields. By the time THE NEW YORKERS opened on Broadway in December of 1930, he had already penned the books for eight previous Broadway musicals, beginning with Rodgers and Hart's DEAREST ENEMY just five years earlier.
He would write a dozen more shows, most notably co-authoring the book of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN with his sister, and ending his career by collaborating on the 1959 Best Musical Tony Award winner, REDHEAD.
But his name isn't quite remembered these days with the same prestige as, say, Oscar Hammerstein or Betty Comden and Adolph Green because he wrote primarily in an era when the scripts to musicals were considered disposable and rarely preserved.
For THE NEW YORKERS, Fields was working from a story of bootleggers, society types, nightclub denizens and mixed-up love affairs created by Peter Arno, the cartoonist most responsible for the style of that popular new magazine, The New Yorker, and songwriter/producer and E. Ray Goetz. Though Cole Porter was responsible for the majority of the score, there were to be five specialty numbers penned by Jimmy Durante, who starred with his vaudeville partners as the team of Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Also, bandleader Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians were to be prominently featured with their own material.
While at first the evening featured no songs that became lasting hits, "Love For Sale," a serious torcher sung by a prostitute which had nothing to do with anything else going on in the show, gained infamy for being banned from the radio waves. Legendary vocalist Elisabeth Welch, who introduced Broadway to The Charleston in the hit RUNNIN' WILD, replaced the small role's originator, Kathryn Crawford, and went on to make "Love For Sale" a connoisseur's classic.
The dramatic, pulsing anthem, "I Happen To Like New York" was introduced by character man Oscar Ragland in another small role, and gained national recognition after Judy Garland's 1962 recording. Its popularity was greatly increased after 9/11.
There's little doubt that if any producer attempted to revive THE NEW YORKERS for 21st Century Broadway, there would be a new bookwriter hired to "fix" the show by smoothing out the zig-zagging plot, cutting out some of the obscurities and incorporating more popular Cole Porter hits. By contrast, City Center Encores! has built its stellar reputation on presenting lesser-known shows in concert versions that, despite the occasional trimming, try to replicate their original contents.
But even the best attempt at reconstructing THE NEW YORKERS from what's left of its rehearsal scripts and performance sheet music leaves holes to be filled. So while director John Rando's giddy and effervescent new mounting is an adaptation by artistic director Jack Viertel that sports some new dialogue and additional Cole Porter numbers from the era ("The Physician," "You've Got That Thing," "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" and "Night and Day" among them), there's no attempt to make any sense of the proceedings. The new THE NEW YORKERS is just as delightfully flimsy and nonsensical as the original surely was.
Hence, there's no explanation offered as to why French jazz artist Cyrille Aimée sings her devastatingly blasé rendition of "Love For Sale" in the middle of act one, nor why Arnie Burton, playing a fellow who gets shot dead several times during the show only to keep coming back, suddenly breaks free from the plot for a dapper crooning of the patter specialty "Let's Not Talk About Love." (You don't need a fact checker to notice that not all of the pop culture references of that 1941 lyric applied in 1930.)
Kevin Chamberlin, thankfully, has not been required to impersonate Jimmy Durante, but smacks out one-liners and delivers oddball numbers like "The Hot Patata" and salutes to "Wood" and "Data" with crack vaudevillian flair.
In the leading roles, Scarlett Strallen plays the obligatory society gal who's bored with the privileged life with snazzy verve and Tam Mutu exudes tough guy charm as the bootlegger she falls for. Byron Jennings and Ruth Williamson are a hoot as a genteel married couple who maintain their marital bliss by routinely allowing each other to enjoy the company of younger escorts.
The versatile character man Eddie Korbich stands out while playing a variety of smaller comical roles, including Mildew, the butler who introduced "I Happen To Like New York" in the original. Sadly, the number has been reassigned in this version, but while it would have been a pleasure to hear Kobich's soaring tenor singing the passionate declaration, that doesn't discredit Strallen's thrilling belt of the number that closes the show.
While it's fun when Encores! revives popular pieces like BIG RIVER and 1776, the chances to attend obscurities by the great masters, even when not entirely accurate reconstructions are possible, are the kind of offerings that create true excitement among musical theatre enthusiasts and help preserve Broadway's artistic heritage.